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Biol Lett. 2012 Dec 12;9(1):20120890. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0890. Print 2013 Feb 23.

Ecological change in the lower Omo Valley around 2.8 Ma.

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Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin 10115, Germany.


Late Pliocene climate changes have long been implicated in environmental changes and mammalian evolution in Africa, but high-resolution examinations of the fossil and climatic records have been hampered by poor sampling. By using fossils from the well-dated Shungura Formation (lower Omo Valley, northern Turkana Basin, southern Ethiopia), we investigate palaeodietary changes in one bovid and in one suid lineage from 3 to 2 Ma using stable isotope analysis of tooth enamel. Results show unexpectedly large increases in C(4) dietary intake around 2.8 Ma in both the bovid and suid, and possibly in a previously reported hippopotamid species. Enamel δ(13)C values after 2.8 Ma in the bovid (Tragelaphus nakuae) are higher than recorded for any living tragelaphin, and are not expected given its conservative dental morphology. A shift towards increased C(4) feeding at 2.8 Ma in the suid (Kolpochoerus limnetes) appears similarly decoupled from a well-documented record of dental evolution indicating gradual and progressive dietary change. The fact that two, perhaps three, disparate Pliocene herbivore lineages exhibit similar, and contemporaneous changes in dietary behaviour suggests a common environmental driver. Local and regional pollen, palaeosol and faunal records indicate increased aridity but no corresponding large and rapid expansion of grasslands in the Turkana Basin at 2.8 Ma. Our results provide new evidence supporting ecological change in the eastern African record around 2.8 Ma, but raise questions about the resolution at which different ecological proxies may be comparable, the correlation of vegetation and faunal change, and the interpretation of low δ(13)C values in the African Pliocene.

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