Platyrrhines (or New World Monkeys – NWM) inhabit South America and there are currently 5 families and 151 species, possessing traits not found in Catarrhines (Apes and Old World Monkeys of Africa and Asia). The NWM fossil record is fragmentary, with the earliest fossil specimens found in Argentina and dated to the middle Miocene (~ 22 million years ago), and more recent fossil remains found on the Caribbean islands and dated to the Late Pleistocene or early Holocene (~ 20-5 thousand years ago). The evolutionary relationships among living NWM and fossil species remain highly speculative. However, Woods et al. (2018) reported the successful recovery of ancient DNA from a Jamaican fossil species Xenothrix, closely related to living species of the Callicebinae, the Titi monkeys. The continuing uncertainty surrounding NWM evolutionary history has resulted in several Caribbean fossil NWM assigned as tentative ancestral species to living howler monkeys (genus Alouatta) based on similarities of highly prognathic faces, robust crania and smaller than expected brain size or endocranial volume (ECV).
A recent study by Halenar-Price & Tallman (2019) examined cranial shape and potential correlation with ECV in three Caribbean fossil and four living NWM genera. Patterns of cranial shape were determined for each living NWM species using geometric morphometrics and, once controlling for absolute size and phylogeny, the correlation with ECV was investigated using an encephalization quotient (EQ). Results from statistical tests for a correlation between cranial shape and brain size indicated no strong support for common trend for cranial shape describing the entire NWM clade, with the overall effect of cranial shape change in living NWM only slightly associated with brain size or ECV (less than 10%). Instead, cranial shape change was very species-specific, with species often differing in cranial width, cranial base flexion and globularity of the cranial vault. The howler monkeys had the lowest association between ECV and cranial shape, while the saki monkeys (genus Pithecia), showed greater links between ECV and cranial shape change associated with seed-eating diet and presence of cranial crests.
To examine fossil NWM and the role of encephalization on cranial shape, phylogeny was accommodated and fossil NWM added to the analyzes. Results indicated that Dominican Republic fossil NWM Antillothrix had a higher encephalization quotient (EQ) than living howler monkeys and was instead within range of titi monkeys (genus Callicebus), while Brazilian fossil NWM Cartelles was within the range of living howler monkeys. However, the Cuban fossil NWM Paralouatta was below the range of living howler monkeys. This study highlighted that the combined presence of facial prognathism, robust cranial form and smaller than expected brain size in NWM was strongly influenced by species-specific patterns related to diet, physiological and ecological adaptations, where, in very generalized terms, similarities between fossil and living new world monkeys do not necessarily indicate shared evolutionary associations.