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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Primate brain architecture and selection in relation to sex

Patrik Lindenfors15*, Charles L Nunn23 and Robert A Barton4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Zoology, Stockholm University, S-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

2 Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

3 Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-3140, USA

4 Evolutionary Anthropology Research Group, Durham University, Durham DH1 3HN, UK

5 PO Box 194 23, 202 KNH, Nairobi, Kenya

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BMC Biology 2007, 5:20  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-5-20

Published: 10 May 2007

Abstract

Background

Social and competitive demands often differ between the sexes in mammals. These differing demands should be expected to produce variation in the relative sizes of various brain structures. Sexual selection on males can be predicted to influence brain components handling sensory-motor skills that are important for physical competition or neural pathways involving aggression. Conversely, because female fitness is more closely linked to ecological factors and social interactions that enable better acquisition of resources, social selection on females should select for brain components important for navigating social networks. Sexual and social selection acting on one sex could produce sexual dimorphism in brain structures, which would result in larger species averages for those same brain structures. Alternatively, sex-specific selection pressures could produce correlated effects in the other sex, resulting in larger brain structures for both males and females of a species. Data are presently unavailable for the sex-specific sizes of brain structures for anthropoid primates, but under either scenario, the effects of sexual and social selection should leave a detectable signal in average sizes of brain structures for different species.

Results

The degree of male intra-sexual selection was positively correlated with several structures involved in autonomic functions and sensory-motor skills, and in pathways relating to aggression and aggression control. The degree of male intra-sexual selection was not correlated with relative neocortex size, which instead was significantly positively correlated with female social group size, but negatively correlated with male group size.

Conclusion

Sexual selection on males and social selection on females have exerted different effects on primate brain architecture. Species with a higher degree of male intra-sexual selection carry a neural signature of an evolutionary history centered on physical conflicts, but no traces of increased demands on sociocognitive tasks. Conversely, female sociality is indicated to have driven the evolution of socio-cognitive skills. Primate brain architecture is therefore likely to be a product of ecological and species-specific social factors as well as different sex-specific selection pressures. Our results also highlight the need for acquisition and analysis of sex-specific brain components in mammals.