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J Hum Evol. 2011 Sep;61(3):233-42. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.03.007. Epub 2011 May 28.

Predictors of orbital convergence in primates: a test of the snake detection hypothesis of primate evolution.

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  • 1Cognitive Ethology Laboratory, German Primate Center, G√∂ttingen, Germany.


Traditional explanations for the evolution of high orbital convergence and stereoscopic vision in primates have focused on how stereopsis might have aided early primates in foraging or locomoting in an arboreal environment. It has recently been suggested that predation risk by constricting snakes was the selective force that favored the evolution of orbital convergence in early primates, and that later exposure to venomous snakes favored further degrees of convergence in anthropoid primates. Our study tests this snake detection hypothesis (SDH) by examining whether orbital convergence among extant primates is indeed associated with the shared evolutionary history with snakes or the risk that snakes pose for a given species. We predicted that orbital convergence would be higher in species that: 1) have a longer history of sympatry with venomous snakes, 2) are likely to encounter snakes more frequently, 3) are less able to detect or deter snakes due to group size effects, and 4) are more likely to be preyed upon by snakes. Results based on phylogenetically independent contrasts do not support the SDH. Orbital convergence shows no relationship to the shared history with venomous snakes, likelihood of encountering snakes, or group size. Moreover, those species less likely to be targeted as prey by snakes show significantly higher values of orbital convergence. Although an improved ability to detect camouflaged snakes, along with other cryptic stimuli, is likely a consequence of increased orbital convergence, this was unlikely to have been the primary selective force favoring the evolution of stereoscopic vision in primates.

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