Daily Archives: April 18, 2017

Dead baby monkeys

There’s a dark side to being a primate. Last year a review article summarized data on rates of lethal aggression in non-human animals. The figure below shows some of the results. Several clusters of especially violent species stand out in the figure, including primates.

dead monkeys

Much of the lethal aggression in primates involves infanticide. Sarah Hrdy demonstrated back in the 1970s that infanticide occurs regularly in Hanuman langurs, monkeys in India. A male who takes over a group of females will systematically kill offspring sired by the previous male. If you think evolution is about the survival of the species, this is hard to explain. But it makes sense given the logic of the selfish gene. Females who lose an infant return more quickly to breeding again, and the father of the next infant is likely to be the killer of the previous one.

Primates may be particularly vulnerable to this grim logic, because they spend a long time as infants. Commonly L/G>1, that is to say, the time, L, a female spends lactating for an infant (during which she is unlikely to conceive), is usually greater than the time, G, she spends gestating an infant. This puts particular pressure on males to hurry things along by eliminating nursing infants fathered by other males.

As a result, infanticide is relatively common among primates, and females under particularly strong pressure to find ways to avoid it. Hanuman langurs live in one-male units, where a female has little choice about who she mates with. In other species, by contrast (most baboons, chimpanzees), multiple males reside with multiple females. In these species females are often sexually promiscuous, sometimes actively soliciting multiple males for sex. This is probably mostly a matter of confusing paternity sufficiently to suppress the threat of infanticide. There’s a general lesson here: female promiscuity generally has different evolutionary roots than male promiscuity.

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Ground-up monkey brains

One reason for being interested in monkeys is that they’re brainy mammals. Here’s the conventional graph illustrating that:

brain size

Larger mammals tend to have larger brains, but the relationship is non-linear. Multiplying body mass by x doesn’t multiply brain mass by x. Instead it multiplies brain mass by x.75. In other words, Brain Mass is proportional to (Body Mass).75. Equivalently (taking the logarithm of both sides) Log[Brain Mass] is equal to .75 times Log[Body Mass], plus a constant. So Log[Brain Mass] plotted against Log[Body Mass] gives a straight line with a slope of .75. That means that if one mammal has 16 times the body mass of another, it’s expected to have 8 times the brain mass. 10,000 times the body mass means 1000 times the brain mass. The thing to note is that primates defy expectations. They have larger brains than would be expected based on their body sizes.

But we’ve recently learned that primates – especially big ones – are even more special than this graph suggests. Susan Herculano-Houzel has pioneered a technique that involves chopping up brains (or parts of brains), dissolving their cells to make a kind of brain soup, and counting cell nuclei. This allows her to estimate how many neurons there are in different brains.

monkey brain soup

Major findings: Among most mammals, the number of neurons increases more slowly than brain size. Increase brain size by x, and you increase number of neurons by about x.67. (H-H shows this flipped around. Increase number of neurons by x and you increase brain mass by x1.5.) But primates are exceptional; the relationship is nearly linear. An x-fold increase in primate brain size corresponds to about an x-fold increase in number of neurons. Humans follow the primate rule here. We have about the same density of neurons as other primates. When you combine the exceptionally large brain sizes of humans with a standard high primate neuron density, you get an animal with an enormous number of neurons. By contrast, a rodent with a human sized brain, if it followed rodent rules for how neuron numbers increase with brain size, would have only 1/7 as many neurons.

Neurons are expensive. Most large animals economize by cutting back on neuron density. A cubic centimeter of cow brain has fewer neurons, and consumes energy at a lower rate, than a cubic centimeter of mouse brain. By contrast, large primates are extravagant, devoting exceptionally large energy budgets to running their brains. And human brains are exceptionally costly. An important question for the study of human evolution is how we paid the bill for such costly brains. That’s a story for later. But another part of the story starts back in the early Cenozoic, when monkeys committed to a different set of rules for building brains.

The monkey’s voyage

The Oligocene sees a major diversification of anthropoid primates (monkeys, apes, and humans). Among the anthropoids, the major evolutionary split is a geographic one, between platyrrhines (New World monkeys) and catarrhines (Old World monkeys, apes, and humans). Aegyptopithecus is one of the earliest primates that clearly falls on the catarrhine side of that split (although the split must go back earlier).

At Logarithmic History we traffic in Big Questions, and one of the biggest questions of all is the balance of natural law and accident in making our world. Thus physicists have long hoped to find that the laws governing our universe reduce to just a few fundamental equations, but we saw at the beginning of this blog that they are now confronting the possibility that our universe is just one among many, and that the laws of physics in our universe may incorporate a large dose of historical accident. With the discovery of extra-solar planets, we’re just beginning to get an idea of how typical or atypical our solar system is. And we’ll have a lot of opportunities to ask whether there are Laws of History (an old idea now undergoing a revival in the new field of cliodynamics*) when we move into the historical period later in the year.

The field of biogeography – the study of the geographic distribution of species – has seen some major pendulum swings in this regard. Darwin was intensely interested in questions of biogeography mainly because they could provide support for the theory of evolution. His approach could fairly be called eclectic. From sometime in the second half of the twentieth century however, a lot of biologists thought they could do better than just answering particularistic questions about how species A got to island Z. They wanted to find scientific laws.

Edward O. Wilson was an early pioneer in this area. Along with Robert MacArthur, he developed a theory of island biogeography according to which the number of species on an island is set by a predictable equilibrium between extinction (smaller islands have higher extinction rates) and colonization (remote islands have lower colonization rates). Being a good scientist he actually put this theory to the test by getting an exterminator to “defaunate” (it means what you think it means) some little mangrove islets, and showing that they returned to very close to their predicted equilibrium numbers of animal species after a while.

For the biogeography of continents (and larger islands once part of continents) the quest for scientific laws took a different turn. The discovery of continental drift and plate tectonics encouraged a school of “vicariance biogeography.” Vicariance biogeographers liked to trace current biogeographic distributions to the wanderings of continents. They were highly allergic to explanations involving accidental long-distance dispersal over big stretches of ocean.

Alan de Queiroz, in The Monkey’s Voyage: How Improbable Journeys Shaped the History of Life, provides a highly readable overview of the decline (if not quite the extinction) of the vicariance school in the face of mounting evidence for flukish dispersals as a major factor in biogeography. The dispersal of monkeys to the New World is a dramatic case in point. (Guinea pigs and their relatives are another.) About the only scenario that makes sense involves a raft of trees washing out to sea (most likely from the Congo basin) and eventually delivering a few parched, scared monkeys to the island continent of South America, where they eventually spawned the whole range of species – spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, howler monkeys, tamarins, marmosets, capuchins – we know today. Sheer accident: change the weather a little, leave the monkeys stranded at sea a little longer, and the whole history of primates in the New World is erased.

* so new my spellchecker doesn’t recognize it.