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Brain Behav Evol. 2008;72(2):123-34. doi: 10.1159/000151472. Epub 2008 Oct 7.

Habitat complexity, brain, and behavior.

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The Nature Conservancy, 159 Waterman Street, Providence, RI 02906, USA.


More complex brains and behaviors have arisen repeatedly throughout both vertebrate and invertebrate evolution. The challenge is to tease apart the forces underlying such change. In this review, I show how habitat complexity influences both brain and behavior in African cichlid fishes, drawing on examples from primates and birds where appropriate. These species groups share a number of similarities. They exhibit a considerable range of brain to body weight within their group. Often highly visual, the species show a diversity of habitat types, social systems, and cognitive abilities. Phylogenies are well established. In closely-related cichlid fishes from the monophyletic Ectodine clade of Lake Tanganyika, habitat complexity is directly correlated with social variables, including species richness, diversity, and abundance. Total brain size, telencephalic and cerebellar size are positively correlated with habitat complexity. Visual acuity and spatial memory are also enhanced in cichlids living in more complex environments. I speculate that species-specific neural effects of environmental complexity could be the consequence of the corresponding social changes. However, environmental and social forces affect brains differently. Environmental forces exert a broader effect on brain structures than social ones, suggesting either allometric expansion of the brain structures in concert with brain size and/or co-evolution of these structures. To advance our understanding of the mechanism by which habitat complexity affects brain and behavior will require the use of closely-related species, quantification of complexity, hypothesis testing restricting analysis to a single variable and path analyses to explore the order of importance of such variables. We will also need new experimental paradigms exploring the cognitive and survival value of brain and brain structure changes both in the laboratory and in the wild.

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