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J Hum Evol. 2012 Jul;63(1):52-63. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2012.03.009. Epub 2012 May 10.

Allomaternal care, life history and brain size evolution in mammals.

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


Humans stand out among the apes by having both an extremely large brain and a relatively high reproductive output, which has been proposed to be a consequence of cooperative breeding. Here, we test for general correlates of allomaternal care in a broad sample of 445 mammal species, by examining life history traits, brain size, and different helping behaviors, such as provisioning, carrying, huddling or protecting the offspring and the mother. As predicted from an energetic-cost perspective, a positive correlation between brain size and the amount of help by non-mothers is found among mammalian clades as a whole and within most groups, especially carnivores, with the notable exception of primates. In the latter group, the presence of energy subsidies during breeding instead resulted in increased fertility, up to the extreme of twinning in callitrichids, as well as a more altricial state at birth. In conclusion, humans exhibit a combination of the pattern found in provisioning carnivores, and the enhanced fertility shown by cooperatively breeding primates. Our comparative results provide support for the notion that cooperative breeding allowed early humans to sidestep the generally existing trade-off between brain size and reproductive output, and suggest an alternative explanation to the controversial 'obstetrical dilemma'-argument for the relatively altricial state of human neonates at birth.

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