Single moms have bigger brains

In a new study on Tanganyika cichlids, three scientists[1] [2] [3] from Uppsala University in Sweden have shown that intricate rearing behaviour varies with brain size in females. The only previously published study showing similar patterns concerned predatory animals.

Tropheus tanganyika cichlid
Tropheus moori – one of the species used in the study. – Picture

How the vertebrate brain has developed throughout the course of evolution is still not clear, and we are still not certain if brain functions in a specific species develop to match a demanding environment. One way of learning more about this is to compare brain size and structure in closely related species living under dissimilar circumstances.

It is important to look at differences between males and females since females often distinguish themselves from males, both in behaviour and appearance”, says Niclas Kolm, lead-author of the study.

The study looked for correlations between brain size and ecological factors in a large number of specimens from 39 different species of Tanganyika cichlid. Lake Tanganyika is especially suitable for this type of study since it is inhabited by cichlid groups exhibiting significant dissimilarities in both brain structure and ecology, and whose ancestry is well known. Tanganyika cichlids varies dramatically from species to species when it comes to factors such as body size, diet, habitat, parental care, partner selection, dissimilarities between the sexes, mating behaviour, and brain structure.

The result of the study showed a correlation between brain size and the two factors diet and parental care behaviour. Species where only the female fish cares for egg and fry turned out to have bigger brains than species where both parents engage in parental care. The brain was however only larger in females; there was no difference in brain size between males of the two groups.

The largest brains of all were found in algae-eating cichlids. These fishes live in environments characterized by a high level of social interaction. “This indicates that social environment have played a role in brain development”, says Kolm.

The study was published in the web version of “Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B” on September 17. You can find it here (

[1] Alejandro Gonzalez-Voyer, Animal Ecology, Department of Evolutionary Biology, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University

[2] Niclas Kolm, Animal Ecology, Department of Evolutionary Biology, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University

[3] Svante Winberg, Department of Neuroscience, Physiology Unit, Biomedical Centre (BMC), Uppsala University

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