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J Hum Evol. 2009 Oct;57(4):392-400. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.04.009. Epub 2009 Sep 3.

The Expensive Brain: a framework for explaining evolutionary changes in brain size.

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Anthropological Institute and Museum, University of Zürich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland.


To explain variation in relative brain size among homoiothermic vertebrates, we propose the Expensive Brain hypothesis as a unifying explanatory framework. It claims that the costs of a relatively large brain must be met by any combination of increased total energy turnover or reduced energy allocation to another expensive function such as digestion, locomotion, or production (growth and reproduction). Focusing on the energetic costs of brain enlargement, a comparative analysis of the largest mammalian sample assembled to date shows that an increase in brain size leads to larger neonates among all mammals and a longer period of immaturity among monotokous precocial species, but not among the polytokous altricial ones, who instead reduce their litter size. Relatively large brained mammals, altricial and precocial, also show reduced annual fertility rates as compared to their smaller brained relatives, but allomaternal energy inputs allow some cooperatively breeding altricial carnivores to produce even more offspring in a shorter time despite having a relatively large brain. Thus, the Expensive Brain framework explains why brain size is linked to life history pace in some, but not all mammalian lineages. This framework encompasses other hypotheses of energetic constraints on brain size variation and is also compatible with the Brain Malnutrition Risk hypothesis, but the absence of a mammal-wide correlation between brain size and immature period argues against the Needing-to-Learn explanation for slower development among large brained mammals.

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