Primates have good vision, enlarged brains, and grasping hands and feet, and use their vision to guide reaching and grasping. Scientists have thought that these characteristics evolved together as early primates used their hands and eyes to grab insects and other small prey, or to handle and examine fruit and other foods.
Isbell suggests instead that primates developed good close-up eyesight to avoid a dangerous predator -- the snake.
"A snake is the only predator you really need to see close up. If it's a long way away it's not dangerous," Isbell said.
Neurological studies by others show that the structure of the brain's visual system does not actually fit with the idea that vision evolved along with reaching and grasping, Isbell said. But the visual system does seem to be well connected to the "fear module," brain structures involved in vigilance, fear and learning.
Fossils and DNA evidence show that snakes were likely the first serious predators of modern mammals, which evolved about 100 million years ago. Fossils of snakes with mouths big enough to eat those mammals appear at about the same time. Other animals that could have eaten our ancestors, such as big cats, and hawks and eagles, evolved much later.
Venomous snakes evolved about 60 million years ago, raising the stakes and forcing primates to get better at detecting them.
"There's an evolutionary arms race between the predators and prey. Primates get better at spotting and avoiding snakes, so the snakes get better at concealment, or more venomous, and the primates respond," Isbell said.
Some primate groups less threatened by snakes show fewer signs of evolutionary pressure to evolve better vision. For example, the lemurs of Madagascar do not have any venomous snakes in their environment, and in evolutionary terms "have stayed where they are," Isbell said. In South America, monkeys arrived millions of years before venomous snakes, and show less specialization in their visual system compared with Old World monkeys and apes, which all have good vision, including color.
Having evolved for one purpose, a good eye for color, detail and movement later became useful for other purposes, such as social interactions in groups.
Isbell is currently working on a book about primate origins, including her snake hypothesis.
Andy Fell | EurekAlert!
More genes are active in high-performance maize
19.01.2018 | Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn
How plants see light
19.01.2018 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau
On the way to an intelligent laboratory, physicists from Innsbruck and Vienna present an artificial agent that autonomously designs quantum experiments. In initial experiments, the system has independently (re)discovered experimental techniques that are nowadays standard in modern quantum optical laboratories. This shows how machines could play a more creative role in research in the future.
We carry smartphones in our pockets, the streets are dotted with semi-autonomous cars, but in the research laboratory experiments are still being designed by...
What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...
For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.
Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...
At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.
No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...
Scientists at Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) and Tohoku University have developed high-quality GFO epitaxial films and systematically investigated their ferroelectric and ferromagnetic properties. They also demonstrated the room-temperature magnetocapacitance effects of these GFO thin films.
Multiferroic materials show magnetically driven ferroelectricity. They are attracting increasing attention because of their fascinating properties such as...
08.01.2018 | Event News
11.12.2017 | Event News
08.12.2017 | Event News
19.01.2018 | Materials Sciences
19.01.2018 | Health and Medicine
19.01.2018 | Physics and Astronomy