Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

No need to shrink guts to have a larger brain

Date:
November 10, 2011
Source:
University of Zurich
Summary:
The so-called expensive-tissue hypothesis, which suggests a trade-off between the size of the brain and the size of the digestive tract, has been challenged. Researchers have now shown that brains in mammals have grown over the course of evolution without the digestive organs having to become smaller. The researchers have further demonstrated that the potential to store fat often goes hand in hand with relatively small brains -- except in humans, who owe their increased energy intake and correspondingly large brain to communal child care, better diet and their ability to walk upright.

Thanks to communal care for mothers and children, humans can afford both: a huge brain and more frequent offspring.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Zurich

The so-called expensive-tissue hypothesis, which suggests a trade-off between the size of the brain and the size of the digestive tract, has been challenged by researchers at the University of Zurich. They have shown that brains in mammals have grown over the course of evolution without the digestive organs having to become smaller. The researchers have further demonstrated that the potential to store fat often goes hand in hand with relatively small brains -- except in humans, who owe their increased energy intake and correspondingly large brain to communal child care, better diet and their ability to walk upright.

Related Articles


Brain tissue is a major consumer of energy in the body. If an animal species evolves a larger brain than its ancestors, the increased need for energy can be met by either obtaining additional sources of food or by a trade-off with other functions in the body. In humans, the brain is three times larger and thus requires a lot more energy than that of our closest relatives, the great apes. Until now, the generally accepted theory for this condition was that early humans were able to redirect energy to their brains thanks to a reduced digestive tract. Zurich primatologists, however, have now disproved this theory, demonstrating that mammals with relatively large brains actually tend to have a somewhat bigger digestive tract. Ana Navarrete, the first author on the study recently published in Nature, has studied hundreds of carcasses from zoos and museums.

"The data set contains a hundred species, from the stag to the shrew," explains the PhD student. The scientists involved in the study then compared the size of the brain with the fat-free body mass. Senior author Karin Isler stresses that, "it is extremely important to take an animal's adipose deposits into consideration as, in some species, these constitute up to half of the body mass in autumn." But even compared with fat-free body mass, the size of the brain does not correlate negatively with the mass of other organs.

More fat, smaller brain

Nevertheless, the storage of fat plays a key role in brain size evolution. The researchers discovered another rather surprising correlation: the more fat an animal species can store, the smaller its brain. Although adipose tissue itself does not use much energy, fat animals need a lot of energy to carry extra weight, especially when climbing or running. This energy is then lacking for potential brain expansion. "It seems that large adipose deposits often come at the expense of mental flexibility," says Karin Isler. "We humans are an exception, along with whales and seals -- probably because, like swimming, our bipedalism doesn't require much more energy even when we are a bit heavier."

Interplay of energetic factors

The rapid increase in brain size and the associated increase in energy intake began about two million years ago in the genus Homo. Based on their extensive studies of animals, the Zurich researchers propose a scenario in which several energetic factors are involved: "In order to stabilize the brain's energy supply on a higher level, prehistoric man needed an all-year, high-quality source of food, such as underground tubers or meat. As they no longer climbed every day, they perfected the art of walking upright. Even more important, however, is communal child care," says Karin Isler. Because ape mothers do not receive any help, they can only raise an offspring every five to eight years. Thanks to communal care for mothers and children, humans can afford both: a huge brain and more frequent offspring.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Zurich. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Ana Navarrete, Carel P. van Schaik, Karin Isler. Energetics and the evolution of human brain size. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10629

Cite This Page:

University of Zurich. "No need to shrink guts to have a larger brain." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 November 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111109131304.htm>.
University of Zurich. (2011, November 10). No need to shrink guts to have a larger brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111109131304.htm
University of Zurich. "No need to shrink guts to have a larger brain." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/11/111109131304.htm (accessed October 24, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Friday, October 24, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Black Bear Cub Goes Sunday Shopping

Black Bear Cub Goes Sunday Shopping

Reuters - Light News Video Online (Oct. 23, 2014) Price check on honey? Bear cub startles Oregon drugstore shoppers. Rough Cut (no reporter narration). Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Dances With Wolves in China's Wild West

Dances With Wolves in China's Wild West

AFP (Oct. 23, 2014) One man is on a mission to boost the population of wolves in China's violence-wracked far west. The animal - symbol of the Uighur minority there - is under threat with a massive human resettlement program in the region. Duration: 00:41 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Breakfast Debate: To Eat Or Not To Eat?

Breakfast Debate: To Eat Or Not To Eat?

Newsy (Oct. 23, 2014) Conflicting studies published in the same week re-ignited the debate over whether we should be eating breakfast. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Weird-Looking Dinosaur Solves 50-Year-Old Mystery

Weird-Looking Dinosaur Solves 50-Year-Old Mystery

Newsy (Oct. 23, 2014) You've probably seen some weird-looking dinosaurs, but have you ever seen one this weird? It's worth a look. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Plants & Animals

Earth & Climate

Fossils & Ruins

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins