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Anim Cogn. 2019 Mar;22(2):187-198. doi: 10.1007/s10071-018-01234-1. Epub 2019 Jan 3.

Absolute brain size predicts dog breed differences in executive function.

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School of Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 85719, USA.
Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, Duke University, Durham, NC, 27708, USA.
Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC, 27708, USA.
Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany.
School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, UK.
Department of Psychology, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, UK.
Department of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary.
MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group, Budapest, Hungary.
School of Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, 85719, USA.


Large-scale phylogenetic studies of animal cognition have revealed robust links between absolute brain volume and species differences in executive function. However, past comparative samples have been composed largely of primates, which are characterized by evolutionarily derived neural scaling rules. Therefore, it is currently unknown whether positive associations between brain volume and executive function reflect a broad-scale evolutionary phenomenon, or alternatively, a unique consequence of primate brain evolution. Domestic dogs provide a powerful opportunity for investigating this question due to their close genetic relatedness, but vast intraspecific variation. Using citizen science data on more than 7000 purebred dogs from 74 breeds, and controlling for genetic relatedness between breeds, we identify strong relationships between estimated absolute brain weight and breed differences in cognition. Specifically, larger-brained breeds performed significantly better on measures of short-term memory and self-control. However, the relationships between estimated brain weight and other cognitive measures varied widely, supporting domain-specific accounts of cognitive evolution. Our results suggest that evolutionary increases in brain size are positively associated with taxonomic differences in executive function, even in the absence of primate-like neuroanatomy. These findings also suggest that variation between dog breeds may present a powerful model for investigating correlated changes in neuroanatomy and cognition among closely related taxa.


Brain evolution; Brain size; Breed differences; Citizen science; Cognitive evolution; Executive function


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