Dietary divergence of robust australopithecines

I’m writing a review of the “robust” australopithecines, and I’m reminded of how drastically our understanding of these hominins has changed in just the past decade. Functional interpretations of the skull initially led to the common wisdom that these animals ate lots of hard foods, and had the jaws and teeth to cash the checks written by their diets.

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Comparison of a “gracile” (left) and “robust” (right) Australopithecus face, from Robinson (1954).

While anatomy provides evidence of what an animal could have been eating, there is more direct evidence of what animals actually did eat. Microscopic wear on teeth reflects what kinds of things made their way into an animal’s mouth, presumably as food, and so provide a rough idea of what kinds of foods an animal ate in the days before it died. Microwear studies of A. robustus from South Africa had confirmed previous wisdom: larger pits and more wear complexity in A. robustus than in the earlier, “gracile” A. africanus suggested more hard objects in the robust diet (e.g., Scott et al., 2005). A big shock came a mere 8 years ago with microwear data for the East African “hyper robust” A. boisei: molars had many parallel scratches and practically no pitting, suggesting of a highly vegetative diet (Ungar et al. 2008).

robust microwear

Microwear in A. boisei (blue) and A. robustus (red). Although they overlap mostly for anisotropy (y-axis), they are completely distinct for complexity (x-axis). Data from Grine et al. (2012) and skull diagrams from Kimbel et al. (2004).

Stable carbon isotope analysis, which assesses what kinds of plant-stuffs were prominent in the diet when skeletal tissues (e.g. teeth) formed, further showed that the two classically “robust” hominins (and the older, less known A. aethiopicus) ate different foods. Whereas A. robustus had the carbon isotope signature of an ecological generalist, A. boisei had values very similar to gelada monkeys who eat a ton of grass/sedge. GRASS!

robust isotopes

Stable carbon isotope data for robust australopithecines. Data from Cerling et al. (2013) and skull diagrams from Kimbel et al. (2004). Note again the complete distinction between A. robustus (red) and A. boisei (blue).

ResearchBlogging.orgWhile microwear and isotopes don’t tell us exactly what extinct animals ate, they nevertheless are much more precise than functional anatomy and help narrow down what these animals ate and how they used their environments. This highlights the importance of using multiple lines of evidence (anatomical, microscopic, chemical) to understand life and ecology of our ancient relatives.

REFERENCES

Cerling TE, Manthi FK, Mbua EN, Leakey LN, Leakey MG, Leakey RE, Brown FH, Grine FE, Hart JA, Kaleme P, Roche H, Uno KT, & Wood BA (2013). Stable isotope-based diet reconstructions of Turkana Basin hominins. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (26), 10501-6 PMID: 23733966

Grine FE, Sponheimer M, Ungar PS, Lee-Thorp J, & Teaford MF (2012). Dental microwear and stable isotopes inform the paleoecology of extinct hominins. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 148 (2), 285-317 PMID: 22610903

Kimbel WH, Rak Y, & Johanson DC (2004). The Skull of Australopithecus afarensis. Oxford University Press.

Robinson, J. (1954). Prehominid Dentition and Hominid Evolution Evolution, 8 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2405779

Ungar PS, Grine FE, & Teaford MF (2008). Dental microwear and diet of the Plio-Pleistocene hominin Paranthropus boisei. PloS One, 3 (4) PMID: 18446200

Culinary trends in an extinct hominid

A few weeks ago I discussed a recent paper that analyzed the carbon and oxygen isotope ratios from Australopithecus boisei molars (Cerling et al. 2011). The major finding here was that an enlarged sample (n=24 more) corroborated earlier isotopic (van der Merwe et al. 2008) and tooth wear evidence (Ungar et al. 2008) that A. boisei probably did not subsist on as much hard foods as previously thought. Although this strange hominid probably ate mostly grass/aquatic tubers, some researchers think it may have looked something like this:
Left, A. boisei reconstructed skull, from McCollum (1999, Fig. 1). Right, artist’s reconstruction of what the individual on the left may have looked like during life.
But looking at the numbers I’m wondering if the carbon isotopes reveal anything more about this curious hominid. If we plot boisei‘s carbon 13 values against the fossils’ estimated ages, there’s a small hint of a temporal trend, of increasing carbon 13 levels over time (more C4 plant consumption). Fitting a line to these data does indicate an increasing C4 component over time, but the slope of the line is not significantly different from zero. The early, high value could be an outlier (not eating the same stuff as his/her peers?), although the lowest carbon 13 value of all that would support this trend is also much lower than the other values; it could be a more anomalous one. So while it’s tempting to hypothesize dietary change over time in A. boisei, at the moment it looks like you can’t reject the hypothesis that diet is consistent throughout the Pleistocene until the A. boisei’s demise.  Supporting dietary stasis, Ungar and colleagues (2008) reported similar molar tooth wear in specimens from 2.27-1.4 million years ago.
In addition, Cerling and colleagues sampled at least one of each of the cheek teeth. Because teeth form in the jaws in a sequence (not all at the exact same time), the isotopic signatures from given teeth represent the dietary intake of carbon at various different points in an individual’s childhood. In the figure below I lumped upper and lower teeth together; the un-numbered “M” indicates molars unassigned to a specific position.

The first molar crown starts to form right around birth, and note here that it’s carbon 13 values are slightly higher than the other molars. The premolars and second molar start to form around the same time, so it is curious that each of these teeth show distinctly different ranges of carbon 13 levels. The sole P3 is also the lowest value (eating fewer C4 plants) in the entire sample, but the P4 has less negative values (eating more C4 plants). Not sure what’s going on here, but maybe later analyses of more specimens will clarify the situation.

ResearchBlogging.org
Our australopithecine ancestors and cousins have proven to be a rag-tag bunch of funny bipeds, and A. boisei has proven to be one of the weirder ones, in my opinion. Of course descriptions of Ardipithecus ramidus and Australopithecus sediba skeletons have been recent reminders that we have lots left to learn about Pleistocene hominids. For my part, I’m interested in working out the deal with the group of “robust” Australopithecus.
References
Cerling, T., Mbua, E., Kirera, F., Manthi, F., Grine, F., Leakey, M., Sponheimer, M., & Uno, K. (2011). Diet of Paranthropus boisei in the early Pleistocene of East Africa Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1104627108
McCollum, M. (1999). The Robust Australopithecine Face: A Morphogenetic Perspective Science, 284 (5412), 301-305 DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5412.301
Ungar PS, Grine FE, & Teaford MF (2008). Dental microwear and diet of the Plio-Pleistocene hominin Paranthropus boisei. PloS one, 3 (4) PMID: 18446200
van der Merwe NJ, Masao FT and Bamford MK. 2008. Isotopic evidence for contrasting diets of early hominins Homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei of Tanzania. South African Journal of Science 104: 153-155

What the hell was Australopithecus boisei doing?

A little over 2 million years ago there a major divergence of hominids, leading on the one hand to our earliest ancestors in the genus Homo, and on the other hand to a group of ‘robust’ australopithecines, the latter group a failed evolutionary experiment in being human. In our ancestors, parts of the skull associated with chewing began to get smaller and more delicate, while the robust australopithecines increased the sizes of their crushin’-teeth and chewin’-muscle attachments.
A face not even a mother could love, so now they’re extinct (from McCollum 1999 Fig. 1). Note the very tall face, flaring cheeks, and massive lower jaw which would have facilitated wicked-pisser chewing power.
Weirder, there is a South African form (Australopithecus robustus) and an East African form (A. boisei, the figure here looks like it’s based off this species) of robust australopithecine. These two may have inherited their robust adaptations from a common ancestor, or they may be unrelated lineages that evolved these features in parallel. A boisei has been referred to as ‘hyper-robust,’ its face and teeth are generally larger than those of A. robustus.
For a while it’s been supposed that these ‘robust’ chewing adaptations in our weird, extinct evolutionary cousins (every family has those, right?) reflected a diet of hard objects requiring powerful crushing and grinding – things like hard fruits, seeds, Italian bread, etc. But a few years ago Peter Ungar and others (2008) examined the microscopic wear patterns on the surfaces of molar teeth of A. boisei and noted that they lacked the characteristic pits of a hard-object feeder. A. robustus on the other hand does have wear patterns more like an animal that ate hard foods. Why such a difference? Why the hell wasn’t boisei behaving robustly?
Also in 2008 Nikolaas van der Merwe and colleagues analyzed the carbon isotopes preserved in the teeth of A. boisei and some other fossils. Briefly, plants utilize two isotopes of carbon (C12 and C13), but ‘prefer’ the lighter-weight C12. Some groups of plants like grasses have thrived because they’re less picky and can get by just as well with C13. Different kinds of plants, then, incorporate different amounts of these two carbon isotopes into their tissues, then when animals eat it, these isotopes get incorporated into the animal’s developing tissues, including tooth enamel. So by looking at the relative amounts of carbon in teeth, researchers can get a rough idea of whether an animal was eating more of the C13-loving or C13-loathing plants (or the animals eating the plants). van der Merwe and others found A. boisei to have a way higher percentage of the plants that don’t discriminate against C13 as much, possibly things like grass, sedges or terrestrial flowering plants. GRASS?!


Last week, Thure Cerling and colleagues expanded on the earlier study led by van der Merwe, including a larger set of boisei specimens spanning 500 thousand years of the species’ existence. Lo and behold, Cerling and others got similar results: the isotopic signature in A boisei is similar to grass-feeding pigs and horses in its habitat – was the badass “hyper robust” A boisei just a hominid version of a horse? Now, the silica in grass make it extremely wearing on tooth enamel, and while A. boisei had crazy thick molar enamel, I would be a little surprised if the boisei dentition could withstand a lifetime of a grassy diet. Nevertheless, boisei‘s diet clearly differed from robustus, based on both dental wear and carbon isotopes.
This raises interesting questions about the evolution of the robust group. Does their shared ‘robust’ morphology reflect common ancestry, with the subtle differences the result of their divergent diets? Or do the subtle differences indicate that they evolved separately but their diets for whatever reasons resulted in similar mechanical loading on their jaws and faces? It should also be noted that while the dates for South African cave sites are always a bit uncertain, it is possible that A. robustus persisted alongside genus Homo until around 1 million years ago, whereas the fossil record for A. boisei craps out around 1.4 million years ago – was A. boisei too specialized on crappy grass, resulting in its evolutionary demise?
ResearchBlogging.org
A horse-ish, human-ish hominid? Australopithecus boisei, rest in peace. 2.1 – 1.4 mya.
References
Cerling TE, Mbua E, Kirera FM, Manthi FK, Grine FE, Leakey MG, Sponheimer M, & Uno KT (2011). Diet of Paranthropus boisei in the early Pleistocene of East Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 21536914
McCollum, M. (1999). The Robust Australopithecine Face: A Morphogenetic Perspective Science, 284 (5412), 301-305 DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5412.301
Ungar PS, Grine FE, & Teaford MF (2008). Dental microwear and diet of the Plio-Pleistocene hominin Paranthropus boisei. PloS one, 3 (4) PMID: 18446200
van der Merwe NJ, Masao FT, & Bamford MK (2008). Isotopic evidence for contrasting diets of early hominins Homo habilis and Australopithecus boisei of Tanzania. South African Journal of Science 104: 153-155