Research Article: Anatomical Correlates to Nectar Feeding among the Strepsirrhines of Madagascar: Implications for Interpreting the Fossil Record

Date Published: October 17, 2011

Publisher: Hindawi Publishing Corporation

Author(s): Magdalena N. Muchlinski, Jonathan M. G. Perry.


One possible ecological scenario for the origin of primates is the archaic pollination and coevolution hypothesis. Its proponents contend that the consumption of nectar by some early primates and the resulting cross-pollination is an example of coevolution that drove adaptive radiations in some primates. This hypothesis is perhaps ecologically sound, but it lacks the morphology-behavior links that would allow us to test it using the fossil record. Here we attempt to identify cranial adaptations to nectar feeding among the strepsirrhines of Madagascar in order to provide such links. Many Malagasy strepsirrhines are considered effective cross-pollinators of the flowers they feed from, and nectar consumption represents as much as 75% of total feeding time. Previous studies identified skeletal correlates to nectar feeding in the crania of nonprimate mammals; from these, nine cranial measurements were chosen to be the focus of the present study. Results indicate that Cheirogaleus, Varecia, and Eulemur mirror other nectar-feeding mammals in having elongated crania and/or muzzles. These strepsirrhines might be effective cross-pollinators, lending support to the coevolution hypothesis.

Partial Text

Several traits distinguish primates from other mammals, extant and extinct. Foremost among these are orbital convergence, divergent first digits, and the possession of flattened nails instead of claws (at least on the hallux and pollex) [1–4]. The consensus of decades of debate appears to be that this suite of traits evolved as a means to more effectively forage in the small-diameter, terminal branches of trees (perhaps especially angiosperms) at night [1–4]. However, there is still disagreement about the object of the foraging activities. Cartmill [2–4] proposed that the earliest true primates were hunting insects and that convergent orbits were useful not only in guiding locomotion in the fine-branch environment but also in guiding the limbs as the primate seizes its mobile prey. Since its initial publication, the visual predation hypothesis of primate origins has received substantial support from many different lines of evidence [3, 5, 6]. Nevertheless, competing hypotheses exist and some are ecologically compelling.

Results of the bivariate regression analyses (RMA and LS) for the entire strepsirrhine primate sample are reported in Table 2. All comparisons show high correlation coefficients (r = 0.87–0.96). The RMA regression analyses indicate that coronoid process height and maximum tooth row length scale isometrically with body mass. Molar area, total dentary length, total palate length, and maximum palate width scale with slight negative allometry, but the 95% confidence intervals for the slope include isometry. Total skull length, temporal muscle size, and minimum skull width scale negatively, and in no case does the confidence interval include isometry. Results from the least squares regression analyses followed a similar pattern to reduced major axis regression results: dental variables scaled with slight negative allometry, but confidence intervals include isometry mandibular variables scaled isometrically, while cranial variables scaled negatively (Table 2). When the observed regression parameters were compared to theoretical isometric slopes, results were similar (Table 2). Reduced major axis regression slopes for minimum skull length, total palate length, palate width, temporal muscle size, all mandibular variables, and maximum tooth row all scaled isometrically. Least square regression slopes for minimum skull width, total palate length, all mandibular variables, and maximum tooth row were not statistically different from a theoretical isometric slope (Table 2).

Anatomically, nectivores are described as having an overall reduction in masticatory strength, an elongation of the cranium and muzzle, and a narrowing of the palate. In Dumont’s [49] intertaxonomic analysis of nectar feeders, she pinpoints nine variables that are informative for identifying these anatomical trends. Our analyses indicate that traits associated with a decrease in masticatory strength were unsuitable for discriminating the Malagasy strepsirrhines into distinct dietary classes. By contrast, traits linked with muzzle and cranial elongation unified the nondestructive nectar feeders. The nondestructive nectar feeders in this sample were all highly frugivorous; thus, it is possible that muzzle/cranial elongation may be linked to frugivory (or to both nectivory and frugivory) rather than to nondestructive nectar feeding alone. However, because these traits sort along categories of nectivory and not along frugivore/non-frugivore lines in our sample, the expression of these traits among nectivorous strepsirrhines is more likely associated with an adaptive response to nondestructive nectar feeding rather than fruit feeding.