Paleoecology at Hadar

The coming attractions bin at Journal of Human Evolution includes a paper by Kaye Reed, reviewing the evidence of paleoenvironment in the Hadar formation:

Habitat reconstructions of 12 submembers of the Hadar and Busidima formations (˜3.8-2.35 Ma) are presented here along with faunal differences in these submembers through time. Habitats with medium density tree and bush cover dominated the landscape through much of the earlier time period in the Hadar Formation. The lowermost Sidi Hakoma Member is the most closed habitat. The Denen Dora Member shows the influence of frequent floodplain edaphic grasslands with high abundances of reducin bovids. There is an influx of ungulates in the Kada Hadar Member (˜3.2-˜2.96 Ma) that indicates a more arid habitat populated by mammals that were recovered from earlier deposits further south in Ethiopia and Kenya. In the younger deposits from the Busidima Formation at Hadar, the landscape was open wooded grassland with some floodplain environments. The fossil assemblages from the Busidima Formation show a substantial species turnover. Although high numbers of A. afarensis specimens are associated with the lower Sidi Hakoma Member, they clearly inhabited a variety of habitats throughout the entire Hadar Formation. Australopithecus afarensis from Laetoli through Hadar times appears to have been a eurytopic species.

This is a nicely detailed paper, focusing on the amount of wooded/bush habitat, the relation of the hominids to those habitats, and the relative lack of early faunal exchanges with areas further to the south.

The discussion focuses on the range of paleoecologies in which fossil A. afarensis has been found -- including not only Hadar but also nearby Maka and Dikika, and more distant Koobi Fora and Laetoli. Altogether, these localities cover a long time (from before 3.5 up to around 2.9 million years ago). From the range of paleoecologies reconstructed in this paper at Hadar, Reed concludes that A. afarensis did not have a "narrow" habitat preference. It is found in relatively closed woodland, open woodland/bush, and wet grassland/marshland.

There are some differences between localities. At Koobi Fora, relatively few specimens of A. afarensis have been found in the Tulu Bor Member, despite the fact that it occupies the same time as the Hadar sequence. Based on the paleoecological data, Reed suggests that Hadar was a wetter, more closed woodland habitat than Koobi Fora at that time -- Koobi Fora would have included more scrubland punctuated with wetlands and floodplains (here she cites her own 1997 paper).

The early end of the A. afarensis sample is represented at Laetoli. Reed gives a brief review of the paleoecology of that site, which has been interpreted differently by different authors but broadly appears to have had a fairly high amount of rainfall and some patches of forest amid closed woodland:

Thus, the earliest known A. afarensis material was found in deposits showing habitats in which trees and or bushes were fairly plentiful. It is also interesting to note that while the deposits of A. afarensis at Laetoli and Hadar share some perissodactyls, giraffids, suids, and proboscideans, the bovid taxa and those primates other than A. afarensis are not very similar.

Reed concludes that A. afarensis was a "eurytopic" species -- one that inhabited a wide range of habitats and moved broadly across space. It contrasts with the more habitat-selective ("stenotopic") species, which include most of the bovids.

White et al. (1993) suggested broad habitat tolerance for A. afarensis, and indeed, the species has thus far been recovered from regions in which the reconstructed habitat ranges from closed woodland through more open, but wet woodland and shrubland. There is no direct evidence that A. afarensis only existed in riverine forests or grassland habitats, or that they preferred one habitat over another. It is tempting to equate the aridification in the Kada Hadar Member with the extinction of A. afarensis. However, sediments at Hadar are sparse or missing altogether from ˜2.90-2.35 Ma thus obscuring details of the species' demise. All that can be said is that they are no longer present at 2.35 Ma and most of the fauna, including hominins, has been replaced.

References:

Reed KE. 2008. Paleoecological patterns at the Hadar hominin site, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia. J Hum Evol (in press) doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.08.013