Defining fallback foods and assessing their importance in primate ecology and evolution

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2009 Dec;140(4):603-14. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.21082.


Physical anthropologists use the term "fallback foods" to denote resources of relatively poor nutritional quality that become particularly important dietary components during periods when preferred foods are scarce. Fallback foods are becoming increasingly invoked as key selective forces that determine masticatory and digestive anatomy, influence grouping and ranging behavior, and underlie fundamental evolutionary processes such as speciation, extinction, and adaptation. In this article, we provide an overview of the concept of fallback foods by discussing definitions of the term and categorizations of types of fallback foods, and by examining the importance of fallback foods for primate ecology and evolution. We begin by comparing two recently published conceptual frameworks for considering the evolutionary significance of fallback foods and propose a way in which these approaches might be integrated. We then consider a series of questions about the importance of fallback foods for primates, including the extent to which fallback foods should be considered a distinct class of food resources, separate from preferred or commonly eaten foods; the link between life history strategy and fallback foods; if fallback foods always limit primate carrying capacity; and whether particular plant growth forms might play especially important roles as fallback resources for primates. We conclude with a brief consideration of links between fallback foods and primate conservation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological / physiology
  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / physiology
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / methods
  • Diet*
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Population Dynamics
  • Primates / physiology*