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Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Counterintuitive Evolutionary Lesson of the Nutcracker Man

In recent years, paleoanthropologists have suggested that specializations like P. boisei's teeth arose not to take advantage of a preferred food source, but a fallback source -- something that was consumed rarely, most likely in lean times when other foods ran short.

"Take the lowland gorilla as an example," said Ungar in an e-mail. "Gorillas are extremely specialized anatomically. They have big, heavy crests on their molars for shearing and slicing tough foods. They also have large chewing muscles and specialized skull anatomy related to chewing. [But] they prefer foods similar to those eaten by more generalized chimpanzees (i.e., soft fruits)."

In broader terms, an animal's evolutionary features may reflect what helped it survive in a pinch, rather than its daily lifestyle.

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