The impact of fallback foods on wild ring-tailed lemur biology: A comparison of intact and anthropogenically disturbed habitats



Fallback foods are often viewed as central in shaping primate morphology, and influencing adaptive shifts in hominin and other primate evolution. Here we argue that fruit of the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica) qualifies as a fallback food of ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) at the Beza Mahafaly Special Reserve (BMSR), Madagascar. Contrary to predictions that fallback foods may select for dental and masticatory morphologies adapted to processing these foods, consumption of tamarind fruit by these lemurs leaves a distinct pattern of dental pathology among ring-tailed lemurs at BMSR. Specifically, the physical and mechanical properties of tamarind fruit likely result in a high frequency of severe tooth wear, and subsequent antemortem tooth loss, in this lemur population. This pattern of dental pathology is amplified among lemurs living in disturbed areas at Beza Mahafaly, resulting from a disproportionate emphasis on challenging tamarind fruit, due to few other fruits being available. This is in part caused by a reduction in ground cover and other plants due to livestock grazing. As such, tamarind trees remain one of the few food resources in many areas. Dental pathologies are also associated with the use of a nonendemic leaf resource Argemone mexicana, an important food during the latter part of the dry season when overall food availability is reduced. Such dental pathologies at Beza Mahafaly, resulting from the use or overemphasis of fallback foods for which they are not biologically adapted, indicate that anthropogenic factors must be considered when examining fallback foods. Am J Phys Anthropol 140:671–686, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.