New Grant Sheds Light on the Evolution of Primate Skull Shape

Man standing near a creek in a rain forest with a walking stick.
Dr. Justin Ledogar at the Brownsberg field site in Suriname.  

Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you your skull shape. Well, not quite, but thanks to a newly-funded grant from the Leakey Foundation, Dr. Justin Ledogar might have some good insights.

Dr. Ledogar, an Assistant Research Professor in Evolutionary Anthropology, will examine dietary ecology and feeding biomechanics in a unique group of South American primates, the sakis and bearded sakis, at Brownsberg Nature Park in Suriname. Unlike most other fruit-eating primate species, these monkeys specialize on the nutrient-rich seeds found within immature, and often very hard, fruits.

“Sakis and bearded sakis are an ideal group to study primate dietary adaptation,” said Ledogar, who plans to integrate information on feeding behavior and food mechanical properties from Brownsberg with computer-assisted biomechanical simulations back in the lab at Duke. “These species possess an impressive suite of adaptations that permit them to access young seeds from unripe fruits, but there are slight differences between them in how they approach those resources.”

Differences in feeding ecology and behavior between the sakis and bearded sakis at Brownsberg will allow Dr. Ledogar to address questions related to variation in primate craniofacial function and evolution.

“The ultimate goal of this research is to better understand the impact of diet and feeding behavior on the evolution of the primate skull and its biomechanical attributes. This comparative context will help us formulate more reliable hypotheses of facial evolution in fossil species, including those closely related to humans.”

The Leakey Foundation is a non-profit dedicated to increasing scientific knowledge, education, and public understanding of human origins, evolution, behavior, and survival. Every year they provide grants to a cohort of scientists whose research sheds light on the evolutionary origins of humans.