Thursday, June 11, 2009

Social brain hypothesis shot down twice in two days?!

Why do some animals have bigger brains? There's several hypotheses out there, including the monogamy one which was tested in the first paper below, but the strongest one, in my mind, the social complexity (or Machiavellian intelligence) hypothesis, has been "shot down" twice in recent papers. These hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and the ecological determinants of brain size are likely to differ by taxa/clade/lineage.

Sociality, ecology, and relative brain size in lemurs

Evan L. MacLean, Nancy L. Barrickman, Eric M. Johnson and Christine E. Wall
Journal of Human Evolution Volume 56, Issue 5, May 2009, Pages 471-478
Abstract: The social brain hypothesis proposes that haplorhine primates have evolved relatively large brains for their body size primarily as an adaptation for living in complex social groups. Studies that support this hypothesis have shown a strong relationship between relative brain size and group size in these taxa. Recent reports suggest that this pattern is unique to haplorhine primates; many nonprimate taxa do not show a relationship between group size and relative brain size. Rather, pairbonded social monogamy appears to be a better predictor of a large relative brain size in many nonprimate taxa. It has been suggested that haplorhine primates may have expanded the pairbonded relationship beyond simple dyads towards the evolution of complex social groups. We examined the relationship between group size, pairbonding, and relative brain size in a sample of 19 lemurs; strepsirrhine primates that last share a common ancestor with monkeys and apes approximately 75 Ma. First, we evaluated the social brain hypothesis, which predicts that species with larger social groups will have relatively larger brains. Secondly, we tested the pairbonded hypothesis, which predicts that species with a pairbonded social organization will have relatively larger brains than non-pairbonded species. We found no relationship between group size or pairbonding and relative brain size in lemurs. We conducted two further analyses to test for possible relationships between two nonsocial variables, activity pattern and diet, and relative brain size. Both diet and activity pattern are significantly associated with relative brain size in our sample. Specifically, frugivorous species have relatively larger brains than folivorous species, and cathemeral species have relatively larger brains than diurnal, but not nocturnal species. These findings highlight meaningful differences between Malagasy strepsirrhines and haplorhines, and between Malagasy strepsirrhines and nonprimate taxa, regarding the social and ecological factors associated with increases in relative brain size. The results suggest that factors such as foraging complexity and flexibility of activity patterns may have driven selection for increases in brain size in lemurs.

Brain-size evolution and sociality in Carnivora
John A. Finarelli, John J. Flynn
PNAS June 9, 2009 vol. 106 no. 23 9345-9349
Abstract: Increased encephalization, or larger brain volume relative to body mass, is a repeated theme in vertebrate evolution. Here we present an extensive sampling of relative brain sizes in fossil and extant taxa in the mammalian order Carnivora (cats, dogs, bears, weasels, and their relatives). By using Akaike Information Criterion model selection and endocranial volume and body mass data for 289 species (including 125 fossil taxa), we document clade-specific evolutionary transformations in encephalization allometries. These evolutionary transformations include multiple independent encephalization increases and decreases in addition to a remarkably static basal Carnivora allometry that characterizes much of the suborder Feliformia and some taxa in the suborder Caniformia across much of their evolutionary history, emphasizing that complex processes shaped the modern distribution of encephalization across Carnivora. This analysis also permits critical evaluation of the social brain hypothesis (SBH), which predicts a close association between sociality and increased encephalization. Previous analyses based on living species alone appeared to support the SBH with respect to Carnivora, but those results are entirely dependent on data from modern Canidae (dogs). Incorporation of fossil data further reveals that no association exists between sociality and encephalization across Carnivora and that support for sociality as a causal agent of encephalization increase disappears for this clade.

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