Big brains arose twice in higher primates

July 9, 2008
Fossil Chilecebus from South America. Credit: John Weinstein, The Field Museum

After taking a fresh look at an old fossil, John Flynn, Frick Curator of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, and colleagues determined that the brains of the ancestors of modern Neotropical primates were as small as those of their early fossil simian counterparts in the Old World. This means one of the hallmarks of primate biology, increased brain size, arose independently in isolated groups—the platyrrhines of the Americas and the catarrhines of Africa and Eurasia.

"Primatologists have long suspected that increased encephalization may have arisen at different points in the primate evolutionary tree, but this is the first clear demonstration of independent brain size increase in New and Old World anthropoids," says Flynn of the paper that appeared in the Museum's publication Novitates this June. Encephalization is the increase in brain size relative to body size. Animals with large encephalization quotients (E.Q.'s) are those with bigger brains relative to their body size in comparison to the average for an entire group. Most primates and dolphins have high E.Q.'s relative to other mammals, although some primates (especially apes and humans) have higher E.Q.'s than others.

At the heart of the new paper is the development of more accurate equations for estimating body size in platyrrhines, or New World "monkeys." Most fossils are fragments of skulls or teeth so, to help in estimating their body size (and then E.Q.), Flynn and colleagues collected 80 measurements of the skulls, jaws, and teeth of 17 different species of living New World monkeys that ranged across the full spectrum of body sizes. This study is one of the first to estimate body size with platyrrhines instead of their better-studied counterparts from the Old World, and this detailed analysis uses new statistical approaches to tease out which characteristics correlate best with body size. The goal is to apply this equation to fossilized specimens.

Chilecebus, found high in the Andes and described by Flynn and collaborators in 1995 in Nature, is one such fossil. The skull dates to 20 million years ago and is the oldest and most complete well-dated primate skull from the New World. In the Novitates paper, Flynn and colleagues more accurately estimate that Chilecebus weighed about 583 grams and had an E.Q. of only 1.11—a much smaller relative brain size than any living New or Old World anthropoid, which have E.Q.'s ranging from 1.39-2.44 (and even higher for humans).

"The result is clear: early fossil members of both the New World and Old World anthropoid lineages had small brain sizes, thus the larger brain sizes seen in both groups today must have arisen independently," says Flynn. "Documenting that large brains evolved separately several times within Primates will enhance understanding of the timing and pathways of brain expansion and its effects on skull growth and shape, and may lead to new insights into the genetic controls on encephalization."

Eric Delson, the Chair of Anthropology at Lehman College, City University of New York and a Research Associate at the Museum, concurs. "This work confirms that brain size increase may be one of the common characteristics of all primates," he says. "The relatively small brain of Chilecebus contrasts with that of the slightly younger (16.5 million years ago), larger brained fossil Killikaike found in Argentina and described two years ago. It is probable that brain size also increased independently in the lemurs of Madagascar, as well as in the apes (of which humans are the extreme case) and the cercopithecid monkeys of Africa and Asia."

Source: American Museum of Natural History

Explore further: The hand and foot of Homo naledi

Related Stories

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

South Africa's new human ancestor sparks racial row

September 17, 2015

Some prominent South Africans have dismissed the discovery of a new human ancestor as a racist theory designed to cast Africans as "subhuman", an opinion that resonates in a country deeply bruised by apartheid.

All about the fossilized bones of (maybe) Homo naledi

September 14, 2015

As you know, most fields of science, especially the ones best beloved by media, are dominated by white guys. Paleoanthropology, for example. Unless you are pretty familiar with human paleontology, Meave Leakey is likely to ...

How moths integrate sensory and control information

September 21, 2015

It's difficult enough to see things in the dark, but what if you also had to hover in midair while tracking a flower moving in the wind? That's the challenge the hummingbird-sized hawkmoth (Manduca sexta) must overcome while ...

Recommended for you

Light-optics research could improve medical imaging

October 13, 2015

A team of researchers, including The University of Queensland's Dr Joel Carpenter, has developed echo-less lights that could improve medical imaging inside the body, leading to less-intrusive surgery.

Just a touch of skyrmions

October 13, 2015

Ancient memory devices such as handwriting were based on mechanical energy—but in the modern world they have given way to devices based generally on electrical manipulation.

Toyota promises better mileage and ride with Prius hybrid

October 13, 2015

Toyota Motor Corp. released details for its fourth-generation Prius on Tuesday, promising that improvements in the battery, engine, wind resistance and weight mean better mileage for the world's top-selling hybrid car.

What happens when your brain can't tell which way is up?

October 13, 2015

In space, there is no "up" or "down." That can mess with the human brain and affect the way people move and think in space. An investigation on the International Space Station seeks to understand how the brain changes in ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Jul 09, 2008
What - no stupid comments in here about how our brains may have evolved but god must have put the eyes in our skulls?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.