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May 9, 2022 4:50 pm

Big Brains Saved Elephants From Extinction, Israeli-Italian Study Finds

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Illustrative photo of an elephant and her calf.

Larger brains saved elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, and other mammals from extinction over the past tens of thousands of years, according to a study by researchers from Israel and Italy.

The researchers, led by Prof. Shai Meiri of Tel Aviv University’s School of Zoology and doctoral student Jacob Dembitzer of the University of Naples in Italy, linked relative brain sizes to intelligence, and concluded that higher intelligence would have helped the extant species survive.

“We found that the surviving animals had brains 53% larger, on average than evolutionarily closely related, extinct species of a similar body size,” Prof. Meiri commented.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Reports, the study indicated that a larger brain size, relative to body size, helped extant species adapt their behavior to changing conditions, like climate change and human activity such as hunting.

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“We propose that possessing a large brain was an important, yet so far neglected characteristic of surviving megafauna species,” the researchers wrote.

The study included research on mammals that existed over a period of about 120,000 years, “from the time the last Ice Age began, and the time that modern man began to spread all over the world with lethal weapons, to 500 years before our time,” Dembitzer remarked.

“This hypothesis even helps us explain the large number of extinctions in South America and Australia, since the large mammals living on these continents had relatively small brains,” he noted.

The researchers gathered data on 50 extinct species of mammals from all continents, weighing from 11 kg (24 pounds), like the extinct giant echidna, up to 11 tons (22,000 pounds), like the straight-tusked elephant that were once found in Africa, Europe, and Asia — including Israel. They compared the sizes of their cranial cavity to that of 291 evolutionarily close mammal species that survived and exist today, ranging from the 1.4 kg (3 pounds) platypus to the 4 ton (8,000 pounds) African elephant.

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