Primate brain size is predicted by diet but not sociality


The social brain hypothesis posits that social complexity is the primary driver of primate cognitive complexity, and that social pressures ultimately led to the evolution of the large human brain. Although this idea has been supported by studies indicating positive relationships between relative brain and/or neocortex size and group size, reported effects of different social and mating systems are highly conflicting. Here, we use a much larger sample of primates, more recent phylogenies, and updated statistical techniques, to show that brain size is predicted by diet, rather than multiple measures of sociality, after controlling for body size and phylogeny. Specifically, frugivores exhibit larger brains than folivores. Our results call into question the current emphasis on social rather than ecological explanations for the evolution of large brains in primates and evoke a range of ecological and developmental hypotheses centred on frugivory, including spatial information storage, extractive foraging and overcoming metabolic constraints.

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Figure 1: Ancestral reconstructions of primate EQ (left) and mean group size (right).


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We thank M. Shattuck for help with data compilation, H. Kaplan for providing access to additional data, R. Raaum for statistical advice, and R. Peterson and M. Petersdorf for encouragement and feedback on previous versions of the manuscript. For training in phylogenetic comparative methods, J.P.H. thanks the AnthroTree Workshop, which is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF; BCS-0923791) and the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NSF grant EF-0905606). This material is based on work supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (grant DGE1342536).

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A.R.D. designed the project and performed the analyses with input from J.P.H. and S.A.W. A.R.D. and S.A.W. collected the data. All three authors wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Alex R. DeCasien.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–107, Supplementary Text, Supplementary References. (PDF 990 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

Full dataset on brain size, body size, diet, social/mating systems, group size and estimates of early Eocene fossil primate brain volumes, complied from published literature sources. (XLS 930 kb)

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DeCasien, A., Williams, S. & Higham, J. Primate brain size is predicted by diet but not sociality. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0112 (2017).

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