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Gorilla and orangutan brains conform to the primate cellular scaling rules: Implications for human evolution

Herculano-Houzel S, Kaas JH (2011) Brain Behav Evol 77, 33-44.

Gorillas and orangutans are primates at least as large as humans, but their brains amount to about one third of the size of the human brain. This discrepancy has been used as evidence that the human brain is about 3 times larger than it should be for a primate species of its body size. In contrast to the view that the human brain is special in its size, we have suggested that it is the great apes that might have evolved bodies that are unusually large, on the basis of our recent finding that the cellular composition of the human brain matches that expected for a primate brain of its size, making the human brain a linearly scaled-up primate brain in its number of cells. To investigate whether the brain of great apes also conforms to the primate cellular scaling rules iden- tified previously, we determine the numbers of neuronal and other cells that compose the orangutan and gorilla cerebella, use these numbers to calculate the size of the brain and of the cerebral cortex expected for these species, and show that these match the sizes described in the literature. Our results suggest that the brains of great apes also scale linearly in their numbers of neurons like other primate brains, including humans. The conformity of great apes and humans to the linear cellular scaling rules that apply to other primates that diverged earlier in primate evolution indicates that prehistoric Homo species as well as other hominins must have had brains that conformed to the same scaling rules, irrespective of their body size. We then used those scaling rules and published estimated brain volumes for various hominin species to predict the numbers of neurons that composed their brains. We predict that Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis had brains with approximately 80 billion neurons, within the range of variation found in modern Homo sapiens. We propose that while the cellular scaling rules that apply to the primate brain have remained stable in hominin evolution (since they apply to simians, great apes and modern humans alike), the Colobinae and Pongidae lineages favored marked increases in body size rather than brain size from the common ancestor with the Homo lineage, while the Homo lineage seems to have favored a large brain instead of a large body, possibly due to the metabolic limitations to having both.

The PDF for this paper can be downloaded here.