Interspecific Variation in Primate Countershading: Effects of Activity Pattern, Body Mass, and Phylogeny

Abstract

Countershading is defined as an animal displaying a dark dorsal and light ventral surface. This color pattern is found in numerous species, yet there are relatively few quantitative tests that examine its potential adaptive nature. The most frequently employed explanation for countershading is its ability to increase crypsis. I used a comparative approach to test 2 predictions of this hypothesis in primates. First, diurnal species should exhibit stronger countershading versus nocturnal species because light levels are low at night, reducing the benefit of countershading. Second, the degree of countershading should decrease as body mass increases because large animals should have a lower predation risk. I collected data from 171 museum specimens representing 63 primate species. Using digital photography, I quantified the average luminance values on the ventral and dorsal surfaces of each specimen and defined the degree of countershading as the ratio of these values. Nocturnal primates displayed similar levels of countershading compared to diurnal species. Previous studies have shown that some nocturnal primates are more active when moonlight levels are high, suggesting that countershaded pelages may act as an antipredator adaptation. I also found support for a negative relationship between body mass and the degree of countershading using both species values and phylogenetically independent contrasts. There were some exceptions to this pattern, including low levels of countershading for most callitrichine species, which may be due to the vertical positional behavior of many callitrichines, thereby reducing any benefit gained from countershading. In sum, variation in primate countershading is related to body mass and phylogeny, but not to activity pattern.

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Acknowledgments

I thank Eileen Westwig at the American Museum of Natural History and Bill Stanley at the Field Museum for access to the primate collections and logistical support. Amy Pokempner, Wendy Erb, Kerry Ossi, Lisa Paciulli, Sara Martin, James Higham, Joanna Setchell, and 2 anonymous reviewers offered helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Melissa Gerald and Brenda Bradley provided stimulating discussions regarding primate coloration and methods for collecting color data. I thank James Higham for inviting me to contribute to this special issue. This research was supported by grants from the Field Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, and the Leakey Foundation.

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Correspondence to Jason M. Kamilar.

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Kamilar, J.M. Interspecific Variation in Primate Countershading: Effects of Activity Pattern, Body Mass, and Phylogeny. Int J Primatol 30, 877 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10764-009-9359-9

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Keywords

  • color
  • crypsis
  • mammal
  • pelage
  • positional behavior
  • predation