From 19-22 August 2018 I will attend the Evolution conference in Montpellier, France. I will present a poster on “Fruit colour as a driver for the evolution of trichromatic primate diversity” in S-33 Ecological models of macroevolution. Please visit me and / or my poster during the ‘Cocktail Poster Session 5.30pm –7.30pm’ on Tuesday 21st, or any other time!
The mutualism between fruits and frugivores is prominent in tropical rainforests, but to what extent fruits have influenced the macroevolution and macroecology of frugivores and their functional traits remains underexplored. Here, we hypothesize that trichromatic colour vision (i.e. the ability to distinguish green and red) in frugivorous primates has evolved as an adaptation to detect conspicuously coloured (i.e. reddish) fruits against a background of green foliage. The readily detection of these fruits as critical resources may have provided trichromatic primates a competitive advantage over dichromatic primates that cannot distinguish reds from greens.
To test this hypothesis, we combined global distribution, phylogenetic and colour vision data for >400 primate species with fruit colour data for >1700 palm and >80 fig species. Palms (Arecaceae) and figs (Ficus) are considered keystone resources for frugivores in tropical rainforests worldwide. We used structural equation modelling to show that the regional proportion of food plant species with conspicuously coloured fruits positively affects the diversity of trichromatic primates, but only in Africa. We show that this effect intensifies towards the tropics, following a hump-shaped relationship with food plant species richness. This suggests that the most species-rich places (i.e. rainforests) provide sufficient alternative food sources for primates, decreasing their dependence on conspicuous fruits. Overall, our results indicate that the consumption of palm and fig fruits could have been a driver for the diversification of trichromatic colour vision in African primates, and that food availability is an important determinant of frugivore diversity more generally.