If more nerve cells mean more smarts, then dogs beat cats, paws down, a new study on carnivores shows. That harsh reality may shock some friends of felines, but scientists say the real surprises are inside the brains of less popular carnivores. Raccoon brains are packed with nerve cells, for instance, while brown bear brains are sorely lacking.
By comparing the numbers of nerve cells, or neurons, among eight species of carnivores (ferret, banded mongoose, raccoon, cat, dog, hyena, lion and brown bear), researchers now have a better understanding of how different-sized brains are built. This neural accounting, described in an upcoming Frontiers in Neuroanatomy paper, may ultimately help reveal how brain features relate to intelligence.
For now, the multispecies tally raises more questions than it answers, says zoologist Sarah Benson-Amram of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “It shows us that there’s a lot more out there that we need to study to really be able to understand the evolution of brain size and how it relates to cognition,” she says.
Neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel of Vanderbilt University in Nashville and colleagues gathered brains from the different species of carnivores. For each animal, the researchers whipped up batches of “brain soup,” tissue dissolved in a detergent. Using a molecule that attaches selectively to neurons in this slurry, researchers could count the number of neurons in each bit of brain real estate.
For most animals, the team found the expected numbers of neurons, given a certain brain size. Those expectations came in part from work on other mammals’ brains. That research showed that with the exception of primates (which pack in lots of neurons without growing bigger brains), there’s a predictable relationship between…
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