Purgatorius (Nobu Tamura).


Purgatorius (after Purgatory Hill in Montana); pronounced PER-gah-TORE-ee-us


Woodlands of North America

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (65 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About six inches long and a few ounces


Probably omnivorous

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; primate-like teeth; ankle bones adapted to climbing trees

About Purgatorius

Most of the prehistoric mammals of the late Cretaceous period looked pretty much the same--small, quivering, mouse-sized creatures that spent most of their lives high up in trees, the better to avoid rampaging raptors and tyrannosaurs. On closer examination, though, especially of their teeth, it's clear that these mammals were each specialized in their own distinct way. What set Purgatorius apart from the the rest of the rat pack is that it possessed distinctly primate-like teeth, leading to speculation that this tiny creature may have been directly ancestral to modern-day chimps, rhesus monkeys, and humans--all of whom had the chance to evolve only after the dinosaurs went extinct and opened up some valuable breathing room for other types of animals.

The trouble is, not all paleontologists agree that Purgatorius was a direct (or even distant) precursor of primates; rather, it may have been an early example of the closely related group of mammals known as "plesiadapids," after the most famous member of this family, Plesiadapis. What we do know about Purgatorius is that it lived high up in trees (as we can infer from the structure of its ankles), and that it managed to straddle the K/T Extinction Event: fossils of Purgatorius have been discovered dating both to the late Cretaceous period and the early Paleocene epoch, a few million years later. Most likely, this mammal's arboreal habits helped rescue it from oblivion, making accessible a new source of food (nuts and seeds) at a time when most non-tree-climbing dinosaurs were starving to death on the ground.

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Strauss, Bob. "Purgatorius." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, thoughtco.com/purgatorius-1093272. Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 25). Purgatorius. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/purgatorius-1093272 Strauss, Bob. "Purgatorius." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/purgatorius-1093272 (accessed March 31, 2023).