Feeding Ecology and Niche Partitioning of the Laetoli Ungulate Faunas

  • Thomas M. KaiserEmail author
Part of the Vertebrate Paleobiology and Paleoanthropology Series book series (VERT)


The Pliocene ungulate fauna from the ­hominid-bearing Laetolil succession (Southern Serengeti, Tanzania) is investigated with regard to dietary adaptation, niche segregation and change over time. The fossiliferous Upper Laetolil Beds (ULB) (3.63–3.85 Ma) are unconformably overlain by the Upper Ndolanya Beds (UNB) (2.66 Ma). Both stratigraphic units contain a rich mammalian fauna, with ungulates predominating. Analysis of dental mesowear is applied to 23 ungulate taxa from both units, including Equidae, Bovidae and Giraffidae, and the results are compared to extant species. The equids at Laetoli represent the only specialized grazers throughout the succession. All Upper Laetolil Alcelaphini and Hippotragini have mesowear signatures that indicate intermediate feeding strategies, different from their modern counterparts that are mostly specialized grazers. This indicates a dietary shift in these lineages, a finding that is also supported by isotope studies. Mesowear data of ungulates from the ULB also suggest that extant ungulates representing closely related lineages in the same genus or even tribe may not serve as actualistic model taxa in faunal reconstructions using taxonomic uniformitarianism. The three species of giraffids and the remaining bovid taxa were either browsers or intermediate feeders, but not grazers. The almost complete absence of grazing guilds, and the heavy reliance on browse by most fossil herbivores, do not support the inference that the Laetoli environment was dominated by grassland. Within the Laetoli succession it appears that fundamental feeding niches converged over time, with grazers increasingly engaged in feeding on less abrasive components and intermediate-feeders closing the dietary gap by exploiting more abrasive feeding niches. Niche partitioning in the Laetoli ungulates appears to reflect environmental change and evolutionary trajectories in the major lineages. This distribution of feeding niches may serve as an overall indicator of niche diversity. Within the succession it appears that the diversity of feeding niches generally decreased. A decrease in feeding niches would suggest that the diverse habitat structure, which was typical of the ULB environment, no longer existed after the faunal and environmental transition that occurred after deposition of the ULB. After a hiatus of 1.0 million years, the UNB environment was more or less free of forest and woodland patches and can be characterized as more or less open grassland.


Ruminantia Bovidae Giraffidae Equidae Paleodiet Mesowear Tooth wear Pliocene Paleoecology 



I thank the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) and the Department of Antiquities in Dar es Salaam for permission to conduct research in Tanzania. Thanks also to the curators and staff at the National Museum of Tanzania (Dar es Salaam) and for their hospitality during the related museum work. Alan Gentry is most sincerely acknowledged for sharing his new Laetoli bovid taxonomy and database. Without Alan’s tremendous contribution concerning the clarification of taxonomic assignments of bovid specimens, this manuscript would probably not have been possible. Thanks to Christoph Zahn for laboratory assistance in sampling, labeling, databasing and molding specimens. Regina Mertins did the 3-D scan of dental specimens at the 3-D morphometry lab of the Mammalogy Section of the Zoological Museum Hamburg. I thank two anonymous reviewers for their very constructive comments and suggestions, that improved the manuscript and I sincerely thank Terry Harrison for his invitation to conduct this study and contribute to this volume. Fieldwork at Laetoli was supported by grants to Terry Harrison from the National Geographic Society, the Leakey Foundation, and the National Science Foundation (Grants BCS-0216683 and BCS-0309513). This contribution further benefited from grants to TMK from the German Research Foundation KA 1525/4-1/4-2, KA 1525/6-1.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biozentrum Grindel und Zoologisches MuseumUniversität HamburgHamburgGermany

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