How does cognition evolve? A comparative analysis of lemur intelligence

Francesca De Petrillo

December 3, 2019, 12:45–13:45


Room MS 003

IAST Lunch Seminar


Understanding why differences in cognitive capacities emerge is one of the most fundamental questions about the origins of intelligence, including for our own species. Many views on the evolution of cognition have emphasized that socioecology may play an important role in shaping cognitive abilities. Malagasy lemurs represent an important model for testing these hypotheses on cognitive evolution because they exhibit high levels of diversity in evolutionarily-relevant characteristics such as social system, ecology, and activity patterns. I will present an ongoing study investigating executive functions abilities, i.e. a diverse set of cognitive abilities dedicated to the monitoring and control of thoughts and actions, in four different lemurs’ species (ruffed lemurs, Coquerel’s sifakas, ring-tailed lemurs and mongoose lemurs), that vary in their wild socio-ecology. To do so, I developed a battery of cognitive tests that tap into several component executive functions and, specifically assessed lemurs’ temperament, inhibitory control, working memory and behavioural flexibility. Preliminary results indicate that sifaka, the only folivorous species, consistently showed the lower performance across tasks compared to the most frugivorous species. Furthermore, ring-tailed lemurs that live in the largest group outperformed other species that live in a less complex social group at least in some tasks. I will discuss these results in terms of the importance of considering both ecological and social factors as complementary explanations for the evolution of primate cognitive skills.