Large brains in mammals first evolved for better sense of smell

July, 2011

High-tech X-ray scans of ancient fossil skulls have revealed that the increase in brain size that began with the first mammals was driven by improvements in smell and touch.

190-million-year-old fossil skulls of Morganucodon and Hadrocodium, two of the earliest known mammal species, has revealed that even at this early stage of mammalian evolution, mammals had larger brains than would be expected for their body size. High-resolution CT scans of the skulls have now shown that this increase in brain size can be attributed to an increase in those regions dealing with smell and touch (mammals have a uniquely well developed ability to sense touch through their fur).

Comparison of these fossils with seven fossils of early reptiles (close relatives of the first mammals), 27 other primitive mammals, and 270 living mammals, has further revealed that the size of the mammalian brain evolved in three major stages. First, an initial increase in the olfactory bulb and related areas (including the cerebellum) by 190 million years ago; then another jump in the size of these regions shortly after that time; and finally an increase in those regions that control neuromuscular coordination by integrating different senses by 65 million years ago.

It’s speculated that the initial increase in smell and touch was driven by early mammals being nocturnal — dinosaurs being active during the day.

Reference: 

[2301] Rowe, T. B., Macrini T. E., & Luo Z-X.
(2011).  Fossil Evidence on Origin of the Mammalian Brain.
Science. 332(6032), 955 - 957.