Evolution of activity patterns and chromatic vision in primates: morphometrics, genetics and cladistics

J Hum Evol. 2001 Feb;40(2):111-49. doi: 10.1006/jhev.2000.0447.


Hypotheses for the adaptive origin of primates have reconstructed nocturnality as the primitive activity pattern for the entire order based on functional/adaptive interpretations of the relative size and orientation of the orbits, body size and dietary reconstruction. Based on comparative data from extant taxa this reconstruction implies that basal primates were also solitary, faunivorous, and arboreal. Recently, primates have been hypothesized to be primitively diurnal, based in part on the distribution of color-sensitive photoreceptor opsin genes and active trichromatic color vision in several extant strepsirrhines, as well as anthropoid primates (Tan & Li, 1999 Nature402, 36; Li, 2000 Am. J. phys. Anthrop. Supple.30, 318). If diurnality is primitive for all primates then the functional and adaptive significance of aspects of strepsirrhine retinal morphology and other adaptations of the primate visual system such as high acuity stereopsis, have been misinterpreted for decades. This hypothesis also implies that nocturnality evolved numerous times in primates. However, the hypothesis that primates are primitively diurnal has not been analyzed in a phylogenetic context, nor have the activity patterns of several fossil primates been considered. This study investigated the evolution of activity patterns and trichromacy in primates using a new method for reconstructing activity patterns in fragmentary fossils and by reconstructing visual system character evolution at key ancestral nodes of primate higher taxa. Results support previous studies that reconstruct omomyiform primates as nocturnal. The larger body sizes of adapiform primates confound inferences regarding activity pattern evolution in this group. The hypothesis of diurnality and trichromacy as primitive for primates is not supported by the phylogenetic data. On the contrary, nocturnality and dichromatic vision are not only primitive for all primates, but also for extant strepsirrhines. Diurnality, and possibly X-linked polymorphic trichromacy, evolved at least in the stem lineage of Anthropoidea, or the stem lineage of all haplorhines.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Color Perception*
  • Fossils
  • Orbit / anatomy & histology
  • Phylogeny
  • Primates* / classification
  • Primates* / genetics
  • Skull / anatomy & histology
  • Vision, Ocular / physiology*