Wednesday, July 18, 2007

What caused the changes in the size of shell ornaments?

This is a question being asked in a new paper in PLoS One

Climate Change, Genetics or Human Choice: Why Were the Shells of Mankind's Earliest Ornament Larger in the Pleistocene Than in the Holocene? by Peter R. Teske et al.


The southern African tick shell, Nassarius kraussianus (Dunker, 1846), has been identified as being the earliest known ornamental object used by human beings. Shell beads dated from ~75,000 years ago (Pleistocene era) were found in a cave located on South Africa's south coast. Beads made from N. kraussianus shells have also been found in deposits in this region dating from the beginning of the Holocene era (<10,000 years ago). These younger shells were significantly smaller, a phenomenon that has been attributed to a change in human preference.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We investigated two alternative hypotheses explaining the difference in shell size: a) N. kraussianus comprises at least two genetic lineages that differ in size; b) the difference in shell size is due to phenotypic plasticity and is a function of environmental conditions. To test these hypotheses, we first reconstructed the species' phylogeographic history, and second, we measured the shell sizes of extant individuals throughout South Africa. Although two genetic lineages were identified, the sharing of haplotypes between these suggests that there is no genetic basis for the size differences. Extant individuals from the cool temperate west coast had significantly larger shells than populations in the remainder of the country, suggesting that N. kraussianus grows to a larger size in colder water.


The decrease in fossil shell size from Pleistocene to Holocene was likely due to increased temperatures as a result of climate change at the beginning of the present interglacial period. We hypothesise that the sizes of N. kraussianus fossil shells can therefore serve as indicators of the climatic conditions that were prevalent in a particular region at the time when they were deposited. Moreover, N. kraussianus could serve as a biomonitor to study the impacts of future climate change on coastal biota in southern Africa.

I will not claim that I think this is an amazing find, but it broadens our knowledge about our early ancestors, and the condition they lived under. On top of that, the findings can be used in other fiels, as the text I quoted above shows.

Go read the article over at PLoS One.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home