Why are the faces of primates so dramatically different from one another?
UCLA biologists working as "evolutionary detectives" studied the faces of 129 adult male primates from Central and South America, and they offer some answers in research published online Jan. 11, in Proceedings of the Royal Society B and available here. The faces they studied evolved over at least 24 million years, they report.
"If you look at New World primates, you're immediately struck by the rich diversity of faces," said Michael Alfaro, a UCLA associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and the senior author of the study. "You see bright red faces, moustaches, hair tufts and much more. There are unanswered questions about how faces evolve and what factors explain the evolution of facial features. We're very visually oriented, and we get a lot of information from the face."
Some of the primate species studied are solitary, while others live in groups that can include dozens or even hundreds of others.
"We found very strong support for the idea that as species live in larger groups, their faces become more simple, more plain," said lead author Sharlene Santana, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in ecology and evolutionary biology and a postdoctoral fellow with UCLA's Institute for Society and Genetics. "We think that is related to their ability to communicate using facial expressions. A face that is more plain could allow the primate to convey expressions more easily.
"Humans have pretty bare faces, which may allow us to see facial expressions more easily than if, for example, we had many colors in our faces."