Evolution of water conservation in humans

Herman Pontzer, Mary H. Brown, Brian M. Wood, David A. Raichlen, Audax Z.P. Mabulla, Jacob A. Harris, Holly Dunsworth, Brian Hare, Kara Walker, Amy Luke, Lara R. Dugas, Dale Schoeller, Jacob Plange-Rhule, Pascal Bovet, Terrence E. Forrester, Melissa Emery Thompson, Robert W. Shumaker, Jessica M. Rothman, Erin Vogel, Fransiska SulistyoShauhin Alavi, Didik Prasetyo, Samuel S. Urlacher, Stephen R. Ross

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


To sustain life, humans and other terrestrial animals must maintain a tight balance of water gain and water loss each day.1–3 However, the evolution of human water balance physiology is poorly understood due to the absence of comparative measures from other hominoids. While humans drink daily to maintain water balance, rainforest-living great apes typically obtain adequate water from their food and can go days or weeks without drinking4–6. Here, we compare isotope-depletion measures of water turnover (L/d) in zoo- and rainforest-sanctuary-housed apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) with 5 diverse human populations, including a hunter-gatherer community in a semi-arid savannah. Across the entire sample, water turnover was strongly related to total energy expenditure (TEE, kcal/d), physical activity, climate (ambient temperature and humidity), and fat free mass. In analyses controlling for those factors, water turnover was 30% to 50% lower in humans than in other apes despite humans’ greater sweating capacity. Water turnover in zoo and sanctuary apes was similar to estimated turnover in wild populations, as was the ratio of water intake to dietary energy intake (∼2.8 mL/kcal). However, zoo and sanctuary apes ingested a greater ratio of water to dry matter of food, which might contribute to digestive problems in captivity. Compared to apes, humans appear to target a lower ratio of water/energy intake (∼1.5 mL/kcal). Water stress due to changes in climate, diet, and behavior apparently led to previously unknown water conservation adaptations in hominin physiology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1804-1810.e5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number8
StatePublished - Apr 26 2021


  • doubly labeled water
  • drinking
  • hominin evolution
  • hominoid evolution
  • hydration
  • water turnover

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Evolution of water conservation in humans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this