Ecomorphology of orbit orientation and the adaptive significance of binocular vision in primates and other mammals

Brain Behav Evol. 2008;71(1):54-67. doi: 10.1159/000108621. Epub 2007 Sep 20.


Primates are characterized by forward-facing, or convergent, orbits and associated binocular field overlap. Hypotheses explaining the adaptive significance of these traits often relate to ecological factors, such as arboreality, nocturnal visual predation, or saltatory locomotion in a complex nocturnal, arboreal environment. This study re-examines the ecological factors that are associated with high orbit convergence in mammals. Orbit orientation data were collected for 321 extant taxa from sixteen orders of metatherian (marsupial) and eutherian mammals. These taxa were coded for activity pattern, degree of faunivory, and substrate preference. Results demonstrate that nocturnal and cathemeral mammals have significantly more convergent orbits than diurnal taxa, both within and across orders. Faunivorous eutherians (both nocturnal and diurnal) have higher mean orbit convergence than opportunistically foraging or non-faunivorous taxa. However, substrate preference is not associated with higher orbit convergence and, by extension, greater binocular visual field overlap. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that mammalian predators evolved higher orbit convergence, binocular vision, and stereopsis to counter camouflage in prey inhabiting a nocturnal environment. Strepsirhine primates have a range of orbit convergence values similar to nocturnal or cathemeral predatory non-primate mammals. These data are entirely consistent with the nocturnal visual predation hypothesis of primate origins.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology
  • Animals
  • Ecology*
  • Fixation, Ocular / physiology
  • Mammals / physiology*
  • Orbit / anatomy & histology*
  • Primates / physiology
  • Vision, Binocular / physiology*
  • Visual Fields / physiology*