A shrew-sized origin for primates


  • Daniel L. Gebo

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    1. Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois 60115
    • Department of Anthropology, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115
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The origin of primates has had a long history of discussion and debate, with few ever considering the impact of the original body weight on subsequent primate adaptive radiations. Here, I attempt to reconstruct early primate evolution by considering the initial size of primates as well as the critical functional-adaptive events that had to occur prior to the early Eocene. Microcebus is often viewed as a living model, and thus 40–65 g might represent a practical ancestral weight for the origin of primates. I consider a smaller original body weight, likely 10–15 g in actual size, and I address the biological implications for shrew-sized primates by comparing the behavioral ecology of mouse lemurs, our smallest living primates, to another tiny-sized mammalian group, the shrews (Family Soricidae). Several behavioral and ecological characteristics are shared by shrews and mouse lemurs, and several mammalian trends are evident with decreased size. I suggest that a shrew-sized ancestral primate would have had high metabolic, reproductive, and predation rates, relatively low population densities, and a dispersed and solitary existence with a promiscuous mating system. Although small mammals like shrews provide insights concerning the ancestral size of primates, primate origins have always been tied to arboreality. I assess other potential arboreal models such as Ptilocercus and Caluromys. By combining all of this information, I try to sequence the events in a functional-adaptive series that had to occur before the early Eocene primate radiations. I suggest that all of these important adaptive events had to occur at a small body size below 50 g. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 47:40–62, 2004. © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.