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Evolution. 2007 Mar;61(3):596-605.

The short legs of great apes: evidence for aggressive behavior in australopiths.

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Department of Biology, 201 South Biology Building, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA.


Early hominins, australopiths, were similar to most large primates in having relatively short hindlimbs for their body size. The short legs of large primates are thought to represent specialization for vertical climbing and quadrupedal stability on branches. Although this may be true, there are reasons to suspect that the evolution of short legs may also represent specialization for physical aggression. Fighting in apes is a behavior in which short legs are expected to improve performance by lowering the center of mass during bipedal stance and by increasing the leverage through which muscle forces can be applied to the ground. Among anthropoid primates, body size sexual dimorphism (SSD) and canine height sexual dimorphism (CSD) are strongly correlated with levels of male-male competition, allowing SSD and CSD to be used as indices of male-male aggression. Here I show that the evolution of hindlimb length in apes is inversely correlated with the evolution of SSD (R(2)= 0.683, P-value = 0.006) and the evolution of CSD (R(2)= 0.630, P-value = 0.013). In contrast, a significant correlation was not observed for the relationship between the evolution of hindlimb and forelimb lengths. These observations are consistent with the suggestion that selection for fighting performance has maintained relatively short hindlimbs in species of Hominoidea with high levels of male-male competition. Although australopiths were highly derived for striding bipedalism when traveling on the ground, they retained short legs compared to those of Homo for over two million years, approximately 100,000 generations. Their short legs may be indicative of persistent selection for high levels of aggression.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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