Evolution of feeding niches in new world monkeys


  • Alfred L. Rosenberger

    1. National Zoological Park, Department of Zoological Research, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20008
    2. Department of Anthropology (m/c 027), University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60680
    Search for more papers by this author


The adaptive radiation of modern New World monkeys unfolded as the major lineages diversified within different dietary-adaptive zones predicated upon a fundamentally frugivorous habit. The broad outlines of this pattern can be seen in the fossil record, beginning in the early Miocene. Cebids are obligate frugivorous predators. The smallest forms (Cebuella, Callithrix) are specialized exudativores, and the largest (cebines) are seasonally flexible omnivores, feeding particularly on insects (Saimiri) or “hard” foods, such as pith and palm nuts (Cebus), when resources are scarce. The smaller-bodied atelids (Callicebus, Aotus) may use insects or leaves opportunistically, but pitheciins (saki-uakaris) specialize on seeds as their major protein source.The larger atelines (Alouatta, Brachyteles) depend on leaves or on ripe fruit (Ateles). Locomotion, body size, and dietary adaptations are linked: claws and small body size opened the canopy-subcanopy niche to callitrichines; climbing and hanging, the fine-branch setting to the atelines; large size and strength, semiprehensile tails, and grasping thumbs, the extractive insectivory of Cebus; deliberate quadrupedalism, the energy-saving transport of folivorous Alouatta. Body size increases and decreases occurred often and in parallel within guilds and lineages. Conventional dietary categories, particularly frugivory, are inadequate for organizing the behavioral and anatomical evidence pertinent to evolutionary adaptation. Related models of morphological evolution based on feeding frequencies tend to obfuscate the selective importance of “critical functions,” responses to the biomechanically challenging components of diet that may be determined by a numerically small, or seasonal, dietary fraction. For fossils, body size is an unreliable indicator of diet in the absence of detailed morphological information. More attention needs to be given to developing techniques for identifying and quantifying mechanically significant aspects of dental form, the physical properties of primate foods, their mode of access, and the cycles of availability and nutritional value. © 1992 Wiley-Liss, Inc.