In my last post  I hinted at how primate evolution may be an example of eight stage evolutionary process in action and today I’ll try to support my first prediction that the prosimian stage evolution was dominated by predatory concerns.

Prosimian evolution and branching within the primate order took place 55 million years ago or a bit earlier, near the beginning of the Eocene Epoch. These first primates , it is safe to assume were nocturnal just like today’s prosimians like lemurs, bushbabies, tarsiers etc are. Why they were nocturnal remains a question to be answered. Species turn nocturnal usually to avoid predation by day predators. Crypsis  is the mechanism that even today is used by prosimians to avoid predation.

It is instructive to note here that though predation in primates has not been considered a big force, in pro-simians it is important. A whole book Primate anti-predator strategies  has been written which focuses more on pro-simian anti-predator strategies than on other primates. It is testament to the fact that predation was/ remains important for prosimian evolution. Here I quote from the preface of the book:

The impact of predation on the morphology, behavior, and ecology of animals has long been recognized by the primatologist community (Altmann, 1956; Burtt, 1981; Curio, 1976; Hamilton, 1971; Kruuk, 1972). Recent thorough reviews of adaptations of birds and mammals to predation have emphasized the complex role that predation threat has played in modifying proximate behaviors such as habitat choice to avoid predator detection, degree and type of vigilance, and group size and defense, as well as ultimate factors including the evolution of warning systems, coloration, and locomotor patterns (Thompson et al., 1980; Sih, 1987; Lima & Dill, 1990; Curio, 1993; Caro, 2005).

We have conducted research on nocturnal primates for more than ten years. Immersed as we have been in the literature of nocturnal primatology we recognize a spectrum of diversity amongst the nocturnal primates in their social organization, cognitive behavior, and ecology (Charles-Dominique, 1978; Bearder, 1999; M¨uller and Thalmann, 2000). Our studies on tarsiers and lorises showed that these species were highly social and that resource distribution was not sufficient to explain why they defied the supposed “stricture” of being solitary (Gursky, 2005a; Nekaris, 2006). Furthermore, our animals defied another supposed “rule” — namely, that all nocturnal primates should avoid predators by crypsis (Charles-Dominique, 1977). Even recent reviews of primate social organization and predation theory included one-sentence write-offs, excluding nocturnal primates from discussions of primate social evolution on the basis that crypsis is their only mechanism of predator avoidance (Kappeler, 1997; Stanford, 2002).

An analysis of the mammalian literature shows this type of generalization to be crude at best. Small mammals are known to have extraordinarily high rates of predation, and a plethora of studies of rodents, insectivores, and lagomorphs, among others, have shown that predation is a viable and powerful ecological force (Lima & Dill, 1990; Caro, 2005). Furthermore, although researchers have long considered it critical to include prosimian studies in a general theoretical framework concerning the evolution of the order Primates (Charles-Dominique & Martin, 1970; Cartmill, 1972; Oxnard et al., 1990), a pervading view contends that prosimians are too far removed from humans for the former’s behavior to shed any light on the patterns of behavior seen in anthropoids (Kappeler & van Schaik, 2002; Stanford, 2002).

However, an excellent review by Goodman et al. demonstrates the dramatic effect predation can have on lemurs, and it remains the most highly quoted resource on lemur predation, despite that it was published in 1993. Studies of referential signaling aid in dispelling the view that prosimians are primitive and not worthy of comparison with monkeys and apes (Oda, 1998; Fichtel & Kappeler, 2002). A handful of studies further reveal that prosimians are not always cryptic and may engage in social displays toward predators (Sauther, 1989; Sch¨ulke, 2001; Bearder et al., 2002; Gursky, 2005b).

Leaving for the time-being the fact that prosimains too engage in social behavior as a defense against predation, and sticking to the traditional view that crypsis best defines their defense mechanism, the thing to be noted is the relative abundance of predatory strategies on prosimian evolution. A whole book has been written keeping that in mind!!

So my thesis is that for the very first stage of evolution when a leap was made, prosimains got left behind, still struggling with predation; while the common ancestor of new world and old world primates somehow solved/ reduced the problem of predation and became diurnal and maybe started living in large social groups and thus exhibiting social defenses against predators. This evolutionary successful completion of the first developmental/ evolutionary task of avoiding predators, then enabled these ancient primates to focus their energies on finding food and thus from insectivores become fruit-eating and move towards a rich diet and focus on acquisition of resources. but that takes us to stage II marked by focus on food and the new world monkeys. More on that later!

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