Illness as a source of variation of laterality in lions (Panthera leo)
Brain asymmetry—i.e. the specialisation of each cerebral hemisphere for sensorimotor processing mechanisms and for specific cognitive functions—is widely distributed among vertebrates. Several factors, such as embryological manipulations, sex, age, and breeds, can influence the maintenance, strength, and direction of laterality within a certain vertebrate species. Brain lateralisation is a universal phenomenon characterising not only cerebral control of cognitive or emotion-related functions but also cerebral regulation of somatic processes, and its evolution is strongly influenced by social selection pressure. Diseases are well known to be a cost of sociality but their role in influencing behaviour has received very little attention. The present study investigates the influence of illness conditions as a source of variation on laterality in a social keystone vertebrate predator model, the lion. In a preliminary stage, the clinical conditions of 24 adult lions were assessed. The same animals were scored for forelimb preference when in the quadrupedal standing position. Lions show a marked forelimb preference with a population bias towards the use of the right forelimb. Illness conditions strongly influenced the strength of laterality bias, with a significant difference between clinically healthy and sick lions. According to these results, health conditions should be recognised as an important source of variation in brain lateralisation.
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