Primate sympatry shapes the evolution of their brain architecture

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The main hypotheses on the evolution of animal cognition emphasise the role of conspecifics in affecting the socio-ecological environment shaping cognition. Yet, space is often simultaneously occupied by multiple species from the same ecological guild. These sympatric species can compete for food, which may thereby stimulate or hamper cognition. Considering brain size as a proxy for cognition, we tested whether species sympatry impacted the evolution of cognition in frugivorous primates. We first retraced the evolutionary history of sympatry between frugivorous primate lineages. We then fitted phylogenetic models of the evolution of the size of several brain regions in frugivorous primates, considering or not species sympatry. We found that the evolution of the whole brain or brain regions used in immediate information processing was best fitted with models not considering sympatry. By contrast, models considering species sympatry best predicted the evolution of brain regions related to long-term memory of interactions with the socio-ecological environment, with a decrease in their size the higher the sympatry. We speculate that species sympatry, by generating intense food depletion, might lead to an over-complexification of resource spatiotemporality that counteracts the benefits of high cognitive abilities and/or might drive niche partitioning and specialisation, thereby inducing lower brain region sizes. In addition, we reported that primate species in sympatry diversify more slowly. This comparative study suggests that species sympatry significantly contributes to shaping primate evolution.

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