Macroevolutionary trends of brain mass in Primates

M. Melchionna, A. Mondanaro, C. Serio, S. Castiglione, M. Di Febbraro, L. Rook, J. A.F. Diniz-Filho, G. Manzi, A. Profico, G. Sansalone, P. Raia*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A distinctive trait in primate evolution is the expansion in brain mass. The potential drivers of this trend and how and whether encephalization influenced diversification dynamics in this group are hotly debated. We assembled a phylogeny accounting for 317 primate species, including both extant and extinct taxa, to identify macroevolutionary trends in brain mass evolution. Our findings show that Primates as a whole follow a macroevolutionary trend for an increase in body mass, relative brain mass and speciation rate over time. Although the trend for increased encephalization (brain mass) applies to all Primates, hominins stand out for their distinctly higher rates. Within hominins, this unique trend applies linearly over time and starts with Australopithecus africanus. The increases in both speciation rate and encephalization begin in the Oligocene, suggesting the two variables are causally associated. The substitution of early, stem Primates belonging to plesiadapiforms with crown Primates seems to be responsible for these macroevolutionary trends. However, our findings also suggest that cognitive capacities favoured speciation in hominins.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)14-25
Number of pages12
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 7 Nov 2019


  • ECV
  • extinction rate
  • macroevolution
  • Primates
  • RRphylo
  • search.trend
  • speciation rate

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