Originally Published In
Nat Ecol Evol. 2017 Nov;1(11):1706-1715. doi: 10.1038/s41559-017-0316-2. Epub 2017 Sep 25.
The cognitive buffer hypothesis posits that environmental variability can be a major driver of the evolution of cognition because an enhanced ability to produce flexible behavioural responses facilitates coping with the unexpected. Although comparative evidence supports different aspects of this hypothesis, a direct connection between cognition and the ability to survive a variable and unpredictable environment has yet to be demonstrated. Here, we use complementary demographic and evolutionary analyses to show that among birds, the mechanistic premise of this hypothesis is well supported but the implied direction of causality is not. Specifically, we show that although population dynamics are more stable and less affected by environmental variation in birds with larger relative brain sizes, the evolution of larger brains often pre-dated and facilitated the colonization of variable habitats rather than the other way around. Our findings highlight the importance of investigating the timeline of evolutionary events when interpreting patterns of phylogenetic correlation.
Fristoe, Trevor S.; Iwaniuk, Andrew N.; and Botero, Carlos A., "Big brains stabilize populations and facilitate colonization of variable habitats in birds" (2017). Biology Faculty Publications & Presentations. 149.