One of the great origin stories in the history of mammals is the rise of primates. It’s a story that scientists are still trying to write.
In the early 20th century, anatomists believed primates—united by big brains, grasping hands and feet, and excellent vision, among other features—evolved in response to living in trees. In the 1970s, however, biological anthropologist Matt Cartmill realized an arboreal lifestyle alone wasn’t enough to explain primates’ unique set of characteristics. Plenty of mammals, like chipmunks, live in trees but don’t have nimble hands or closely spaced, forward-facing eyes that allow for good depth perception. Instead, Cartmill suggested these features evolved because early primates were insect predators. He noted that many modern predators, such as cats and owls, have forward-facing eyes because they rely on good vision to grab prey. In the case of early primates, Cartmill said, they hunted tree-dwelling insects.
Not long after Cartmill presented his explanation of primates’ roots, other researchers came up with an alternative idea: Primates evolved in step with the spread of flowering plants. Rather than relying on good vision and dexterity to nab bugs, early primates used these traits to carefully walk out to the ends of delicate tree branches to gather fruits and flowers, as well as the insects that pollinated flowering plants.
Physical anthropologists Robert Sussman and D. Tab Rasmussen of Washington University and botanist Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden review the latest evidence in support of this hypothesis in an article published online in the American Journal of Primatology.
The team suggests that the earliest primates and their extinct close relatives, a group called plesiadapiforms, weren’t strictly insect eaters and therefore the insect predation hypothesis doesn’t hold up. They point out that the molars of plesiadapiforms are rounder than the teeth of earlier mammals, which were sharp for puncturing bugs. The flatter teeth indicate plesiadapiforms were probably grinding fruits, nuts and other plant parts.
The switch to a plant diet coincides with the rise of rise of flowering plants. The earliest flowering plants show up in the fossil record roughly 130 million years ago and became the dominant type of forest plant by about 90 million years ago. Around 56 million years ago, global temperatures spiked and tropical forests spread around the world. About this time, many species of birds and bats emerged. Primates also diversified during this period. Sussman and his colleagues argue that while birds and bats could fly to the ends of branches to consume meals of fruit and nectar, primates took a different route, evolving adaptations that enabled them to be better climbers.
The skeleton of a 56-million-year-old plesiadapiform found in Wyoming provides further evidence of this scenario, the researchers say. Much of the early primate and plesiadapiform fossil record consists of teeth, but in 2002, scientists reported the discovery of the skull, hands and feet of Carpolestes simpsoni. The bones reveal that the species was a good grasper, with an opposable big toe and nails instead of claws. And the teeth indicate the creature ate fruit. But unlike living primates, C. simpsoni did not have forward-facing eyes, suggesting it didn’t have good depth perception. This is an important finding, Sussman and colleagues say. If primates evolved their characteristic features because they were visual predators, then you’d expect good vision to evolve in concert with good grasping. Instead, the C. simpsoni fossils suggest enhanced vision came later. Forward-facing eyes may have later evolved because it helped primates see through the cluttered, leafy environment of the forest canopy.
The team’s arguments rest heavily on evidence from plesiadapiforms. In the past, anthropologists have debated plesiadapiforms close connection to primates. However, Sussman and colleagues think the fossil evidence suggests the two groups shared a common ancestor, and thus the evolutionary trends seen in plesiadapiforms serve as a good guide for what happened in primates.