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Keywords:

  • behavioural flexibility;
  • brain evolution;
  • cognitive buffer;
  • lifespan;
  • mammals;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • phylogenetic generalized linear model

Abstract

Many mammals have brains substantially larger than expected for their body size, but the reasons for this remain ambiguous. Enlarged brains are metabolically expensive and require elongated developmental periods, and so natural selection should have favoured their evolution only if they provide counterbalancing advantages. One possible advantage is facilitating the construction of behavioural responses to unusual, novel or complex socio-ecological challenges. This buffer effect should increase survival rates and favour a longer reproductive life, thereby compensating for the costs of delayed reproduction. Here, using a global database of 493 species, we provide evidence showing that mammals with enlarged brains (relative to their body size) live longer and have a longer reproductive lifespan. Our analysis supports and extends previous findings, accounting for the possible confounding effects of other life history traits, ecological and dietary factors, and phylogenetic autocorrelation. Thus, these findings provide support for the hypothesis that mammals counterbalance the costs of affording large brains with a longer reproductive life.