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Plain faces are more expressive: Comparative study of facial colour, mobility and musculature in primates

May 1, 2014

Facial colour patterns and facial expressions are among the most important phenotypic traits that primates use during social interactions. While colour patterns provide information about the sender's identity, expressions can communicate its behavioural intentions. Extrinsic factors, including social group size, have shaped the evolution of facial coloration and mobility, but intrinsic relationships and trade-offs likely operate in their evolution as well. We hypothesize that complex facial colour patterning could reduce how salient facial expressions appear to a receiver, and thus species with highly expressive faces would have evolved uniformly coloured faces. We test this hypothesis through a phylogenetic comparative study, and explore the underlying morphological factors of facial mobility. Supporting our hypothesis, we find that species with highly expressive faces have plain facial colour patterns. The number of facial muscles does not predict facial mobility; instead, species that are larger and have a larger facial nucleus have more expressive faces. This highlights a potential trade-off between facial mobility and colour patterning in primates and reveals complex relationships between facial features during primate evolution.

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