Monday, 27 March 2017

Why are primates big-brained? Researchers' answer is food for thought


March 27, 2017

Brain size in primates is predicted by diet, an analysis by a team of New York University anthropologists indicates. These results call into question "the social brain hypothesis," which has posited that humans and other primates are big-brained due to factors pertaining to sociality.

The findings, which appear in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, reinforce the notion that both human and non-human primate brain evolution may be driven by differences in feeding rather than in socialization.

"Are humans and other primates big-brained because of social pressures and the need to think about and track our social relationships, as some have argued?" asks James Higham, an assistant professor in NYU's Department of Anthropology and a co-author of the new analysis. "This has come to be the prevailing view, but our findings do not support it—in fact, our research points to other factors, namely diet."

"Complex foraging strategies, social structures, and cognitive abilities, are likely to have co-evolved throughout primate evolution," adds Alex DeCasien, an NYU doctoral candidate and lead author of the study. "However, if the question is: 'Which factor, diet or sociality, is more important when it comes to determining the brain size of primate species?' then our new examination suggests that factor is diet."

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