Evolutionary Development in Australopithecus africanus

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Evolutionary developmental biology is quickly transforming our understanding of how lineages evolve through the modification of ontogenetic processes. Yet, while great strides have been made in the study of neontological forms, it is much more difficult to apply the principles of evo-devo to the miserly fossil record. Because fossils are static entities, we as researchers can only infer evolution and development by drawing connections between them. The choices of how we join specimens together-juveniles to adults to study ontogeny, taxon to taxon to study evolution-can dramatically affect our results. Here, I examine paedomorphism in the fossil hominin species Australopithecus africanus. Using extant African apes as proxies for ancestral hominin morphology, I demonstrate that Sts 71 is most similar to a sub-adult African ape, suggesting that A. africanus is paedomorphic relative to the presumed ancestral form. I then plot ontogenetic size and shape in extant great apes, humans, and A. africanus in order to assess patterns of ontogenetic allometry. Results indicate that ontogenetic allometry in A. africanus, subsequent to M1 occlusion is similar to that in modern humans and bonobos; gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans share a different pattern of size-shape relationship. Combined with results from the analysis of paedomorphism plus knowledge about the developmental chronologies of this group, these findings suggest that paedomorphism in A. africanus arises relatively early in ontogeny.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)488-498
Number of pages11
JournalEvolutionary Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2012


  • Australopithecus africanus
  • Heterochrony
  • Ontogenetic allometry
  • Paedomorphism
  • Taung


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