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Hominins, Sedges, and Termites: New Carbon Isotope Data from the Sterkfontein Valley and Kruger National Park

Sponheimer M, J Lee-Thorp, D de Ruiter, D Codron, J Codron, ‡AT Baugh, F Thackeray
Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 48, Pages 301–312 (doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2004.11.008)
Publication year: 2005

Abstract  Stable carbon isotope analyses have shown that South African australopiths did not have exclusively frugivorous diets, but also consumed significant quantities of C4 foods such as grasses, sedges, or animals that ate these foods. Yet, these studies have had significant limitations. For example, hominin sample sizes were relatively small, leading some to question the veracity of the claim for australopith C4 consumption. In addition, it has been difficult to determine which C4 resources were actually utilized, which is at least partially due to a lack of stable isotope data on some purported australopith foods. Here we begin to address these lacunae by presenting carbon isotope data for 14 new hominin specimens, as well as for two potential C4 foods (termites and sedges). The new data confirm that non-C3 foods were heavily utilized by australopiths, making up about 40% and 35% of Australopithecus and Paranthropus diets respectively. Most termites in the savanna-woodland biome of the Kruger National Park, South Africa, have intermediate carbon isotope compositions indicating mixed C3/C4 diets. Only 28% of the sedges in Kruger were C4, and few if any had well-developed rhizomes and tubers that make some sedges attractive foods. We conclude that although termites and sedges might have contributed to the C4 signal in South African australopiths, other C4 foods were also important. Lastly, we suggest that the consumption of C4 foods is a fundamental hominin trait that, along with bipedalism, allowed australopiths to pioneer increasingly open and seasonal environments.

Stable isotope ratios (d15N and d13C) of syntopic shrews (Sorex)

‡Baugh AT, AG West, EA Rickart, TE Cerling, JR Ehleringer, MD Dearing
The Southwestern Naturalist, Volume 49, Pages 493–500 (doi:10.1894/0038-4909(2004)049<0493:SIRNAC>2.0.CO;2)
Publication year: 2004

Abstract  Local species richness in shrew (Soricidae) assemblages is often high, and the mechanisms of ecological separation remain relatively unexplored. In this study, hair samples from 6 species of Sorex in 3 separate assemblages were analyzed for stable carbon (13C/12C) and nitrogen (15N/14N) isotope ratios to investigate dietary differences. At each locality, common species exhibited a broad range in 15N and, to a lesser extent, 13C, whereas non-overlapping signatures characterized the less abundant species. Because the naturally occurring stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen vary with microenvironment and trophic level, the results support the idea that shrews achieve coexistence through resource partitioning. This study is the first to report stable isotope data on syntopic shrews and provides a direction for future research into resolving the mechanisms of ecological separation in shrew communities.

Species-typical songs in white-crowned sparrows tutored with only phrase pairs

Rose GJ, F Goller, HJ Gritton, SL Plamondon, ‡AT Baugh, BG Cooper
Nature, Volume 432, Pages 753–758, (doi:10.1038/nature02992)
Publication year: 2004

Abstract  Modern theories of learned vocal behaviours, such as human speech and singing in songbirds1 , posit that acoustic communication signals are reproduced from memory, using auditory feedback2 . The nature of these memories, however, is unclear. Here we propose and test a model for how complex song structure can emerge from sparse sequence information acquired during tutoring. In this conceptual model, a population of combination-sensitive (phrase-pair) detectors is shaped by early exposure to song and serves as the minimal representation of the template necessary for generating complete song. As predicted by the model, birds that were tutored with only pairs of normally adjacent song phrases were able to assemble full songs in which phrases were placed in the correct order; birds that were tutored with reverse-ordered phrase pairs sang songs with reversed phrase order. Birds that were tutored with all song phrases, but presented singly, failed to produce normal, full songs. These findings provide the first evidence for a minimal requirement of sequence information in the acoustic model that can give rise to correct song structure.

Also see the News & Views article for this study by Daniel Margoliash.