Fallback foods, eclectic omnivores, and the packaging problem


  • Stuart A. Altmann

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544
    • Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA
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For omnivorous primates, as for other selective omnivores, the array of potential foods in their home ranges present a twofold problem: not all nutrients are present in any food in the requisite amounts or proportions and not all toxins and other costs are absent. Costs and benefits are inextricably linked. This so-called packaging problem is particularly acute during periods, often seasonal, when the benefit-to-cost ratios of available foods are especially low and animals must subsist on fallback foods. Thus, fallback foods represent the packaging problem in extreme form. The use of fallback foods by omnivorous primates is part of a suite of interconnected adaptations to the packaging problem, the commingling of costs and benefits in accessing food and other vital resources. These adaptations occur at every level of biological organization. This article surveys 16 types of potential adaptations of omnivorous primates to fallback foods and the packaging problem. Behavioral adaptations, in addition to finding and feeding on fallback foods, include minimizing costs and requirements, exploiting food outbreaks, living in social groups and learning from others, and shifting the home range. Adaptive anatomical and physiological traits include unspecialized guts and dentition, binocular color vision, agile bodies and limbs, Meissner's corpuscles in finger tips, enlargement of the neocortex, internal storage of foods and nutrients, and ability internally to synthesize compounds not readily available in the habitat. Finally, during periods requiring prolonged use of fallback foods, life history components may undergo changes, including reduction of parental investment, extended interbirth intervals, seasonal breeding or, in the extreme, aborted fetuses. Am J Phys Anthropol 140:615–629, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.