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Lessons from the orangutans: Upright walking may have begun in the trees

n bipedalism to tell whether you're looking at a human or other ape ancestor. It's been getting more and more difficult for us to say what's a human and what's an ape, and our work makes that much more the case."

Crompton and his colleagues, Susannah Thorpe and Roger Holder of the University of Birmingham in Birmingham, Great Britain, came to their conclusions by observing wild orangutans in Sumatra, Indonesia. Orangutans spend almost their whole lives in trees, making them useful models for how our ancestors moved around several million years ago.

To collect the data, Thorpe spent a year living in the Sumatran rainforest and recording virtually every move the orangutans made. Then, she and her colleagues used these observations to test the hypothesis that bipedalism would have benefited tree-dwelling ape ancestors.

Because these ancestors were probably fruit-eaters, as orangutans are, they would have needed a way to navigate the thin, flexible branches at the tree's periphery, where the fruit typically is. Moving on two legs and using their arms primarily for balance, or "hand-assisted bipedalism," may have helped them travel on these branches.

The researchers analyzed nearly 3,000 examples of observed orangutan movement, and found that the orangutans were more likely to use hand-assisted bipedalism when they were on the thinnest branches. When bipedal, the animals also tended to grip multiple branches with their long toes.

On medium-sized branches, the orangutans used their arms more to support their weight, changing their moving style to incorporate hanging. They only tended to walk on all fours when navigating the largest branches, the researchers found.

Hand-assisted bipedalism may have offered several advantages that allowed our arboreal ancestors to venture onto thin branches. They could have gripped multiple branches with their toes and distributed their center of gravity more effectively, while kee
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Contact: Natasha Pinol
npinol@aaas.org
202-326-7088
American Association for the Advancement of Science
31-May-2007


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