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Birth rate, competition are major players in hominid extinctions

Modern human mothers are probably happy that they typically have one, maybe two babies at a time, but for early hominids, low birth numbers combined with competition often spelled extinction.

"The lineages of primates have some traits that make it hard for them to respond to rapid perturbations in the environment," says Dr. Nina G. Jablonski, professor of anthropology and department head at Penn State. "Through time we see a lot of lineages become extinct when environments where the species are found become highly seasonal or unpredictable."

Primates evolved in the Paleocene and Eocene when worldwide climate was less seasonal. The beneficial environment allowed primates to evolve as relatively brainy animals that reproduce slowly. However, when climate changed so that tropical forests shrunk and the environment became patchy, many species including primate species became extinct.

"While past primate populations moved with the forest, early hominid cultures 2.5 million years ago show signs of the ability to live in marginal areas and live on more dynamic, seasonal landscapes," Jablonski told attendees today (Feb. 16) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

Through time, the human lineage evolved to fill a wide variety of ecological niches, but those species that filled narrow environments, were less able to withstand the effects of climate change. Paranthropus boisei, a Pleistocene hominid, thrived around 2.5 million years ago, but disappears from the fossil record a million years ago. Paranthropus boisei became extinct when it was unable to compete with other mammals.

A specialized feeder, Paranthropus boisei dined on hard objects like seeds, tubers and bones. While it had a variety of food sources, they all required the crunching, grinding force of its teeth. Unfortunately, bush pigs and hyenas had great grinding and crushing teeth, too, and went after the same food
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Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
aem1@psu.edu
814-865-9481
Penn State
16-Feb-2007


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