Parallelism And Primitiveness

After parallelisms have been identified, a final critical point that must be addressed is to distinguish specializations from the primitive condition for a group. The close resemblance between food procurement in Daubentonia and Dactylopsila does not imply that ancestral primates or phalangeroids were specialists on wood-boring larvae, because these are convergent specializations generated well after the origins of primates and phalangeroids. The many ecomorph parallelisms suggested by this literature review (Lepilemur and Petauroides, Phaner and Petaurus, Mirza and Gymnobelideus, Microcebus and Cercartetus, Daubentonia and Dactylopsila, Nycticebus and Phalanger) cannot all reflect similarities that were critical in the sequence of events leading to primate origins. If Cartmill (1972) erred in his visual predation hypothesis, it may have been because he relied too heavily on those cases of animals that showed specialized, extreme orbital convergence—such as lorises, owls, and cats—rather than on animals that have moderate convergence and are more likely to reflect the primitive primate condition (Crompton, 1995; Sussman, 1991, 1995). Among prosimians, the ones that behave like Cartmill predicted for an early primate are indeed those with the greatest orbital convergence: Tarsius and Loris are both nearly completely faunivorous and both rely partly (but not completely) on visually directed predation and prey capture with the hands (Crompton, 1995; MacKinnon and MacKinnon, 1980; Nekaris and Rasmussen, 2003; Niemitz, 1984). But these unusual specialists are unlikely to reflect critical events at the basal radiations of primates. Both Tarsius and Loris are not only specialized in their facial structure and diet, but also in their divergent postcranial adaptations relative to the primitive primate condition (Crompton, 1995).

The question of which came first—visually oriented predation or agile movements in fine branches of angiosperms—appears to be a chicken-and-egg type of proposition. However, it seems to us that the ability to navigate in the precarious, three-dimensional world of the terminal branches would be a prerequisite to any ability for visual hunting of fast-moving insects. When a mammal is maneuvering through fine branches the entire habitat becomes dynamic, as the animal plunges and the fine branches bearing small fruits and flowers bob and sway (Figure 10). It is not clear why fine branches, fruits and flowers moving quickly across an early primate's visual field should require optical specializations fundamentally different from those suggested by Cartmill to be associated specifically with insect prey moving across the visual field. We cannot identify a cogent ecological context that would compel early primates to adapt to visual predation of insects outside of the terminal branch milieu—after all, there are many insect-eating mammals that do not have primate-like traits. The complexity of the terminal branch environment is further highlighted by the fact that, unlike terrestrial mammals on a stable surface, a primate or possum in branches much smaller than its own body size must

Figure 10. Cercartetus foraging among terminal angiosperm products, a possible good model of ancestral primate adaptations. Photograph is reproduced with the permission of the Environmental Protection Agency, Queensland; the copyright in the reproduced material belongs to the State of Queensland.

perceive the three-dimensional depth below, thereby encountering problems perhaps similar to those faced by birds and fish (T. M. Preuss, personal communication). This interpretation of the chicken-and-egg problem now seems to be solidly supported by the paleontological data on Carpolestes (Bloch and Boyer, 2002).

Marsupials such as Caluromys, Marmosa, Cercartetus, Gymnobelideus, Petaurus, and others, offer compelling similarities to primitive primates, and represent a virtually untapped resource for work on primate origins. Because the phalangeroids represent a diverse, complex radiation, they also offer a realistic view of how subtle divergences among closely related forms in an ecological context may relate to the origin of higher-level taxa.

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