Primates and the evolution of long, slow life histories

Curr Biol. 2011 Sep 27;21(18):R708-17. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.025.


Primates are characterized by relatively late ages at first reproduction, long lives and low fertility. Together, these traits define a life-history of reduced reproductive effort. Understanding the optimal allocation of reproductive effort, and specifically reduced reproductive effort, has been one of the key problems motivating the development of life-history theory. Because of their unusual constellation of life-history traits, primates play an important role in the continued development of life-history theory. In this review, I present the evidence for the reduced reproductive effort life histories of primates and discuss the ways that such life-history tactics are understood in contemporary theory. Such tactics are particularly consistent with the predictions of stochastic demographic models, suggesting a key role for environmental variability in the evolution of primate life histories. The tendency for primates to specialize in high-quality, high-variability food items may make them particularly susceptible to environmental variability and explains their low reproductive-effort tactics. I discuss recent applications of life-history theory to human evolution and emphasize the continuity between models used to explain peculiarities of human reproduction and senescence with the long, slow life histories of primates more generally.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Body Size
  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Humans
  • Longevity*
  • Organ Size
  • Primates / anatomy & histology
  • Primates / growth & development
  • Primates / physiology*
  • Reproduction*
  • Time Factors