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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Brain structure evolution in a basal vertebrate clade: evidence from phylogenetic comparative analysis of cichlid fishes

Alejandro Gonzalez-Voyer1*, Svante Winberg2 and Niclas Kolm1

Author Affiliations

1 Animal Ecology, Department of Evolutionary Biology, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University, Norbyvägen 18 D, 75236 Uppsala, Sweden

2 Department of Neuroscience, Physiology Unit, Biomedical Centre, Uppsala University, Box 572, 75123 Uppsala, Sweden

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:238  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-238

Published: 21 September 2009



The vertebrate brain is composed of several interconnected, functionally distinct structures and much debate has surrounded the basic question of how these structures evolve. On the one hand, according to the 'mosaic evolution hypothesis', because of the elevated metabolic cost of brain tissue, selection is expected to target specific structures mediating the cognitive abilities which are being favored. On the other hand, the 'concerted evolution hypothesis' argues that developmental constraints limit such mosaic evolution and instead the size of the entire brain varies in response to selection on any of its constituent parts. To date, analyses of these hypotheses of brain evolution have been limited to mammals and birds; excluding Actinopterygii, the basal and most diverse class of vertebrates. Using a combination of recently developed phylogenetic multivariate allometry analyses and comparative methods that can identify distinct rates of evolution, even in highly correlated traits, we studied brain structure evolution in a highly variable clade of ray-finned fishes; the Tanganyikan cichlids.


Total brain size explained 86% of the variance in brain structure volume in cichlids, a lower proportion than what has previously been reported for mammals. Brain structures showed variation in pair-wise allometry suggesting some degree of independence in evolutionary changes in size. This result is supported by variation among structures on the strength of their loadings on the principal size axis of the allometric analysis. The rate of evolution analyses generally supported the results of the multivariate allometry analyses, showing variation among several structures in their evolutionary patterns. The olfactory bulbs and hypothalamus were found to evolve faster than other structures while the dorsal medulla presented the slowest evolutionary rate.


Our results favor a mosaic model of brain evolution, as certain structures are evolving in a modular fashion, with a small but non-negligible influence of concerted evolution in cichlid fishes. Interestingly, one of the structures presenting distinct evolutionary patterns within cichlids, the olfactory bulbs, has also been shown to evolve differently from other structures in mammals. Hence, our results for a basal vertebrate clade also point towards a conserved developmental plan for all vertebrates.