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Diet and Primate Evolution [Preview]

Many characteristics of modern primates, including our own species, derive from an early ancestor's practice of taking most of its food from the tropical canopy

As recently as 30 years ago, the canopy of the tropical forest was regarded as an easy place for apes, monkeys and prosimians to find food. Extending an arm, it seemed, was virtually all our primate relatives had to do to acquire a ready supply of edibles in the form of leaves, flowers, fruits, and other components of trees and vines. Since then, efforts to understand the reality of life for tree dwellers have helped overturn that misconception.

My own field studies have provided considerable evidence that obtaining adequate nutrition in the canopy--where primates evolved--is, in fact, quite difficult. This research, combined with complementary work by others, has led to another realization as well: the strategies that early primates adopted to cope with the dietary challenges of the arboreal environment profoundly influenced the evolutionary trajectory of the primate order, particularly that of the anthropoids (monkeys, apes and humans).

Follow-up investigations indicate as well that foods eaten by humans today, especially those consumed in industrially advanced nations, bear little resemblance to the plant-based diets anthropoids have favored since their emergence. Such findings lend support to the suspicion that many health problems common in technologically advanced nations may result, at least in part, from a mismatch between the diets we now eat and those to which our bodies became adapted over millions of years. Overall, I would say that the collected evidence justifiably casts the evolutionary history of primates in largely dietary terms.

The story begins over 55 million years ago, after angiosperm forests spread across the earth during the late Cretaceous (94 million to 64 million years ago). At that time, some small, insect-eating mammal, which may have resembled a tree shrew, climbed into the trees, presumably in search of pollen-distributing insects. But its descendants came to rely substantially on edible plant parts from the canopy, a change that set the stage for the emergence of the primate order.

Natural selection strongly favors traits that enhance the efficiency of foraging. Hence, as plant foods assumed increasing importance over evolutionary time (thousands, indeed millions, of years), selection gradually gave rise to the suite of traits now regarded as characteristic of primates. Most of these traits facilitate movement and foraging in trees. For instance, selection yielded hands well suited for grasping slender branches and manipulating found delicacies.

Selective pressures also favored considerable enhancement of the visual apparatus (including depth perception, sharpened acuity and color vision), thereby helping primates travel rapidly through the three-dimensional space of the forest canopy and easily discern the presence of ripe fruits or tiny, young leaves. And such pressures favored increased behavioral flexibility as well as the ability to learn and remember the identity and locations of edible plant parts. Foraging benefits conferred by the enhancement of visual and cognitive skills, in turn, promoted development of an unusually large brain, a characteristic of primates since their inception.

As time passed, primates diverged into various lineages: first prosimians, most of which later went extinct, and then monkeys and apes. Each lineage arose initially in response to the pressures of a somewhat different dietary niche; distinct skills are required to become an efficient forager on a particular subset of foods in the forest canopy. Then new dietary pressures placed on some precursor of humans paved the way for the development of modern humans. To a great extent, then, we are truly what we eat.

No Easy Living

MY INTEREST IN THE ROLE of diet in primate evolution grew out of research I began in 1974. While trying to decide on a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I visited the tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island in the Republic of Panama. Studies done on mantled howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata) in the 1930s at that very locale had inadvertently helped foster the impression that primates enjoyed the life of Riley in the canopy.

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