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Keywords:

  • allometry;
  • chondrichthyan;
  • comparative brain morphology;
  • evolution;
  • neuroanatomy

It is a widely accepted view that neural development can reflect morphological adaptations and sensory specializations. The aim of this review is to give a broad overview of the current status of brain data available for cartilaginous fishes and examine how perspectives on allometric scaling of brain size across this group of fishes has changed within the last 50 years with the addition of new data and more rigorous statistical analyses. The current knowledge of neuroanatomy in cartilaginous fishes is reviewed and data on brain size (encephalization, n = 151) and interspecific variation in brain organization (n = 84) has been explored to ascertain scaling relationships across this clade. It is determined whether similar patterns of brain organization, termed cerebrotypes, exist in species that share certain lifestyle characteristics. Clear patterns of brain organization exist across cartilaginous fishes, irrespective of phylogenetic grouping and, although this study was not a functional analysis, it provides further evidence that chondrichthyan brain structures might have developed in conjunction with specific behaviours or enhanced cognitive capabilities. Larger brains, with well-developed telencephala and large, highly foliated cerebella are reported in species that occupy complex reef or oceanic habitats, potentially identifying a reef-associated cerebrotype. In contrast, benthic and benthopelagic demersal species comprise the group with the smallest brains, with a relatively reduced telencephalon and a smooth cerebellar corpus. There is also evidence herein of a bathyal cerebrotype; deep-sea benthopelagic sharks possess relatively small brains and show a clear relative hypertrophy of the medulla oblongata. Despite the patterns observed and documented, significant gaps in the literature have been highlighted. Brain mass data are only currently available on c. 16% of all chondrichthyan species, and only 8% of species have data available on their brain organization, with far less on subsections of major brain areas that receive distinct sensory input. The interspecific variability in brain organization further stresses the importance of performing functional studies on a greater range of species. Only an expansive data set, comprised of species that span a variety of habitats and taxonomic groups, with widely disparate behavioural repertoires, combined with further functional analyses, will help shed light on the extent to which chondrichthyan brains have evolved as a consequence of behaviour, habitat and lifestyle in addition to phylogeny.