When Is a Mandrill Not a Baboon?

Science  12 Feb 1999:
Vol. 283, Issue 5404, pp. 931a
DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5404.931a

With their long faces and red-streaked noses, mandrills look like gaudy baboons. But scientists comparing bones and teeth have confirmed that mandrills are more closely related to long-legged monkeys called mangabeys. Their report, in the 2 February Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a case study in how evolution can dupe casual observers—building similarities into unrelated species and surprising differences into close cousins.

Genetic studies had already hinted at these relationships. Now, John Fleagle of the State University of New York Health Sciences Center in Brooklyn and Scott McGraw of the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury report that the molecular findings are reflected in morphology.

For example, the arm bones of mandrills resemble those of a mainly land-dwelling brand of mangabey more than they do those of baboons. Mandrills and mangabeys also share large molars that can crack hard nuts and seeds. Baboon bones, meanwhile, are more like those of tree-living mangabeys.

The revised monkey family tree, the authors contend, “is [a] striking departure from traditional views of primate phylogeny.” But it's no surprise to molecular biologists. Fleagle “finally agrees with me,” says Todd Disotell of New York University, who in the early '90s found that genetically, mandrills and ground-dwelling mangabeys have a lot in common. Molecular studies, he notes, “are causing people to go back and look at things they might not have looked at before.”

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