The isotopic ecology of African mole rats informs hypotheses on the evolution of human diet.
ABSTRACT: The diets of Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus are hypothesized to have included C4 plants, such as tropical grasses and sedges, or the tissues of animals which themselves consumed C4 plants. Yet inferences based on the craniodental morphology of A. africanus and P. robustus indicate a seasonal diet governed by hard, brittle foods. Such mechanical characteristics are incompatible with a diet of grasses or uncooked meat, which are too tough for efficient mastication by flat, low-cusped molars. This discrepancy, termed the C4 conundrum, has led to the speculation that C4 plant underground storage organs (USOs) were a source of nutrition for hominin species. We test this hypothesis by examining the isotopic ecology of African mole rats, which consume USOs extensively. We measured delta18O and delta13C of enamel and bone apatite from fossil and modern species distributed across a range of habitats. We show that delta18O values vary little and that delta13C values vary along the C3 to C4/CAM-vegetative axis. Relatively high delta13C values exist in modern Cryptomys hottentotus natalensis and Cryptomys spp. recovered from hominin-bearing deposits. These values overlap those reported for A. africanus and P. robustus and we conclude that the USO hypothesis for hominin diets retains certain plausibility.
Project description:Nursing is pivotal in the social and biological evolution of hominins, but to date, early-life behavior among hominin lineages is a matter of debate. The calcium isotopic compositions (δ44/42Ca) of tooth enamel can provide dietary information on this period. Here, we measure the δ44/42Ca values in spatially located microsized regions in tooth enamel of 37 South African hominins to reconstruct early-life dietary-specific variability in Australopithecus africanus, Paranthropus robustus, and early Homo. Very low δ44/42Ca values (<-1.4‰), indicative of milk consumption, are measured in early Homo but not in A. africanus and P. robustus. In these latter taxa, transitional or adult nonmilk foods must have been provided in substantial quantities relative to breast milk rapidly after birth. The results suggest that early Homo have continued a predominantly breast milk-based nursing period for longer than A. africanus and P. robustus and have consequently more prolonged interbirth interval.
Project description:Plio-Pleistocene hominins from South Africa remain poorly understood. Here, we focus on how Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus exploited and-in part-partitioned their environment. Specifically, we explore the extent to which first maxillary molar roots (M1) are oriented and thus, by proxy, estimate the direction of loads habitually exerted on the chewing surface. Landmark-based shape analysis of M1 root reconstructions of 26 South African hominins and three East African Paranthropus boisei suggest that A. africanus may have been able to dissipate the widest range of laterally directed loads. Paranthropus robustus and P. boisei, despite having overlapping morphologies, differ in aspects of root shape/size, dento-cranial morphologies, microwear textures and C4 food consumption. Hence, while Paranthropus monophyly cannot be excluded, equivalence of dietary niche can. The South African hominins occupied distinct ecological niches, whereby P. robustus appears uniquely adapted to dissipate antero-posteriorly directed loads.
Project description:The middle ear ossicles are only rarely preserved in fossil hominins. Here, we report the discovery of a complete ossicular chain (malleus, incus, and stapes) of Paranthropus robustus as well as additional ear ossicles from Australopithecus africanus. The malleus in both early hominin taxa is clearly human-like in the proportions of the manubrium and corpus, whereas the incus and stapes resemble African and Asian great apes more closely. A deep phylogenetic origin is proposed for the derived malleus morphology, and this may represent one of the earliest human-like features to appear in the fossil record. The anatomical differences found in the early hominin incus and stapes, along with other aspects of the outer, middle, and inner ear, are consistent with the suggestion of different auditory capacities in these early hominin taxa compared with modern humans.
Project description:Morphology of the dentofacial complex of early hominins has figured prominently in the inference of their dietary adaptations. Recent theoretical analysis of craniofacial morphology of Australopithecus africanus proposes that skull form in this taxon represents adaptation to feeding on large, hard objects. A modern analog for this specific dietary specialization is provided by the West African sooty mangabey, Cercocebus atys. This species habitually feeds on the large, exceptionally hard nuts of Sacoglottis gabonensis, stereotypically crushing the seed casings using their premolars and molars. This type of behavior has been inferred for A. africanus based on mathematical stress analysis and aspects of dental wear and morphology. While postcanine megadontia, premolar enlargement and thick molar enamel characterize both A. africanus and C. atys, these features are not universally associated with durophagy among living anthropoids. Occlusal microwear analysis reveals complex microwear textures in C. atys unlike those observed in A. africanus, but more closely resembling textures observed in Paranthropus robustus. Since sooty mangabeys process hard objects in a manner similar to that proposed for A. africanus, yet do so without the craniofacial buttressing characteristic of this hominin, it follows that derived features of the australopith skull are sufficient but not necessary for the consumption of large, hard objects. The adaptive significance of australopith craniofacial morphology may instead be related to the toughness, rather than the hardness, of ingested foods.
Project description:Bipedalism is a defining trait of the hominin lineage, associated with a transition from a more arboreal to a more terrestrial environment. While there is debate about when modern human-like bipedalism first appeared in hominins, all known South African hominins show morphological adaptations to bipedalism, suggesting that this was their predominant mode of locomotion. Here we present evidence that hominins preserved in the Sterkfontein Caves practiced two different locomotor repertoires. The trabecular structure of a proximal femur (StW 522) attributed to Australopithecus africanus exhibits a modern human-like bipedal locomotor pattern, while that of a geologically younger specimen (StW 311) attributed to either Homo sp. or Paranthropus robustus exhibits a pattern more similar to nonhuman apes, potentially suggesting regular bouts of both climbing and terrestrial bipedalism. Our results demonstrate distinct morphological differences, linked to behavioral differences between Australopithecus and later hominins in South Africa and contribute to the increasing evidence of locomotor diversity within the hominin clade.
Project description:The East African hominin Paranthropus boisei was characterized by a suite of craniodental features that have been widely interpreted as adaptations to a diet that consisted of hard objects that required powerful peak masticatory loads. These morphological adaptations represent the culmination of an evolutionary trend that began in earlier taxa such as Australopithecus afarensis, and presumably facilitated utilization of open habitats in the Plio-Pleistocene. Here, we use stable isotopes to show that P. boisei had a diet that was dominated by C(4) biomass such as grasses or sedges. Its diet included more C(4) biomass than any other hominin studied to date, including its congener Paranthropus robustus from South Africa. These results, coupled with recent evidence from dental microwear, may indicate that the remarkable craniodental morphology of this taxon represents an adaptation for processing large quantities of low-quality vegetation rather than hard objects.
Project description:The enhanced dietary flexibility of early hominins to include consumption of C4/crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) foods (i.e., foods derived from grasses, sedges, and succulents common in tropical savannas and deserts) likely represents a significant ecological and behavioral distinction from both extant great apes and the last common ancestor that we shared with great apes. Here, we use stable carbon isotopic data from 20 samples of Australopithecus afarensis from Hadar and Dikika, Ethiopia (>3.4-2.9 Ma) to show that this species consumed a diet with significant C4/CAM foods, differing from its putative ancestor Au. anamensis. Furthermore, there is no temporal trend in the amount of C4/CAM food consumption over the age of the samples analyzed, and the amount of C4/CAM food intake was highly variable, even within a single narrow stratigraphic interval. As such, Au. afarensis was a key participant in the C4/CAM dietary expansion by early australopiths of the middle Pliocene. The middle Pliocene expansion of the eastern African australopith diet to include savanna-based foods represents a shift to use of plant food resources that were already abundant in hominin environments for at least 1 million y and sets the stage for dietary differentiation and niche specialization by subsequent hominin taxa.
Project description:Thick molar enamel is among the few diagnostic characters of hominins which are measurable in fossil specimens. Despite a long history of study and characterization of Paranthropus molars as relatively 'hyper-thick', only a few tooth fragments and controlled planes of section (designed to be proxies of whole-crown thickness) have been measured. Here, we measure molar enamel thickness in Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus using accurate microtomographic methods, recording the whole-crown distribution of enamel. Both taxa have relatively thick enamel, but are thinner than previously characterized based on two-dimensional measurements. Three-dimensional measurements show that P. robustus enamel is not hyper-thick, and A. africanus enamel is relatively thinner than that of recent humans. Interspecific differences in the whole-crown distribution of enamel thickness influence cross-sectional measurements such that enamel thickness is exaggerated in two-dimensional sections of A. africanus and P. robustus molars. As such, two-dimensional enamel thickness measurements in australopiths are not reliable proxies for the three-dimensional data they are meant to represent. The three-dimensional distribution of enamel thickness shows different patterns among species, and is more useful for the interpretation of functional adaptations than single summary measures of enamel thickness.
Project description:Females in many species engage in matings with males that are not their social mates. These matings are predicted to increase offspring heterozygosity and fitness, and thereby prevent the deleterious effects of inbreeding. We tested this hypothesis in a cooperative breeding mammal, the common mole-rat Cryptomys hottentotus hottentotus. Laboratory-based studies suggested a system of strict social monogamy, while recent molecular studies indicate extensive extra-pair paternity despite colonies being founded by an outbred pair. Our data show that extra-pair and within-colony breeding males differed significantly in relatedness to breeding females, suggesting that females may gain genetic benefits from breeding with non-resident males. Extra-colony male mating success was not based on heterozygosity criteria at microsatellite loci; however, litters sired by extra-colony males exhibited increased heterozygosity. While we do not have the data that refute a relationship between individual levels of inbreeding (Hs) and fitness, we propose that a combination of both male and female factors most likely explain the adaptive significance of extra-pair mating whereby common mole-rats maximize offspring fitness by detecting genetic compatibility with extra-pair mates at other key loci, but it is not known which sex controls these matings.
Project description:The evolution of C4 grassland ecosystems in eastern Africa has been intensely studied because of the potential influence of vegetation on mammalian evolution, including that of our own lineage, hominins. Although a handful of sparse vegetation records exists from middle and early Miocene terrestrial fossil sites, there is no comprehensive record of vegetation through the Neogene. Here we present a vegetation record spanning the Neogene and Quaternary Periods that documents the appearance and subsequent expansion of C4 grasslands in eastern Africa. Carbon isotope ratios from terrestrial plant wax biomarkers deposited in marine sediments indicate constant C3 vegetation from ?24 Ma to 10 Ma, when C4 grasses first appeared. From this time forward, C4 vegetation increases monotonically to present, with a coherent signal between marine core sites located in the Somali Basin and the Red Sea. The response of mammalian herbivores to the appearance of C4 grasses at 10 Ma is immediate, as evidenced from existing records of mammalian diets from isotopic analyses of tooth enamel. The expansion of C4 vegetation in eastern Africa is broadly mirrored by increasing proportions of C4-based foods in hominin diets, beginning at 3.8 Ma in Australopithecus and, slightly later, Kenyanthropus This continues into the late Pleistocene in Paranthropus, whereas Homo maintains a flexible diet. The biomarker vegetation record suggests the increase in open, C4 grassland ecosystems over the last 10 Ma may have operated as a selection pressure for traits and behaviors in Homo such as bipedalism, flexible diets, and complex social structure.