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

ping one or both of their long arms free to reach for fruits and other supports.

Orangutans also keep their legs straight while standing on bending branches, the authors report. The exact benefit of the straight legs is still unclear, but when humans run on springy surfaces, we also keep our weight-bearing legs relatively straight, so this may have an energy-related advantage.

"Our results suggest that bipedalism is used to navigate the smallest branches where the tastiest fruits are, and also to reach further to help cross gaps between trees," said Thorpe.

The authors propose an evolutionary scenario that begins as other researchers have envisioned. Somewhere toward the end of the Miocene epoch (24 to 5 million years ago), climate in East and Central Africa became alternately wetter and drier, and the rainforest grew increasingly patchy. Apes living in the forest canopy would have begun to encounter gaps between trees that they could not cross at the canopy level.

The Science authors suggest that early human ancestors responded to this by abandoning the high canopy for the forest floor, where they remained bipedal and began eating food from the ground or smaller trees. The ancestors of chimps and gorillas, on the other hand, became more specialized for vertical climbing between the high canopy and the ground and thus developed knuckle-walking for crossing from one tree to another on the ground.

"Our conclusion is that arboreal bipedalism had very strong adaptive benefits. So, we don't need to explain how our ancestors could have gone from being quadrupedal to being bipedal," Thorpe said.

Observations of orangutan movement should be useful for conservation efforts, according to Thorpe. These animals are seriously endangered, primarily due to habitat destruction.

"If you can understand how they cross gaps in the forest, you can learn about effects that living in logged or degraded habitat
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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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