Female Animals Grow Bigger Brains, Males Bigger Antlers

Scientists aren't quite sure why, but they have some theories
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 27, 2024 8:30 AM CST
Male Animals Grow Bigger Antlers, Females Bigger Brains
This photo provided by Yellowstone National Park shows a bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.   (Jake Frank/Yellowstone National Park via AP)

While it's hard to overlook the giant antlers and horns that animals like moose and rams wave around, researchers recently made a fascinating discovery by checking out what's going on with their un-horned, female counterparts. National Geographic dives into the study, which examined over 400 specimens of ungulates (think hooved animals: deer, moose, sheep, goats, and antelope) at seven different museums, a process that took years to undertake. The researchers found that while males began to develop heavy weaponry up top, females started growing larger brains. "I think that the females are a really important aspect of biology that often gets overlooked," says study co-author Nicole Lopez of the University of Montana. "Because usually they appear drab, or dull, or they're not as elaborate."

The paper, published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, notes that male brain sizes remained consistent while they put energy into growing antlers, ever larger ones, over time. However, "it's not that as males invest more on their weapons, they get dumber," says co-author Ted Stankowich of Cal State Long Beach. The authors suggest the male and female traits are correlated. They posit that as males grew larger weapons, the social structures in their herds grew more complex. "Perhaps females need larger brains in order to figure out who they should mate with and how to navigate their social system," says Stankowich.

Evolutionary biologist Ummat Somjee (who wasn't involved with the study) of the University of Texas tells Nat Geo that while that theory is compelling, larger brains aren't always linked to intelligence, and more data on behavioral traits needs to be collected. Some advantages have been proven, though. Per Phys.org, evidence shows that female deer in Scotland with larger brains lived longer and had more offspring. With these new findings, Lopez wonders whether the focus on male fighting to win mates should shift to what choices those large female brains are making. "But it might just be that we're not testing it in the right ways to show that [females] do have some type of decision in the males that they end up mating with," she says. (Elsewhere, a very Canadian warning: Don't let moose lick your car.)

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