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Sex Differences in Mobility and Spatial Cognition

A Test of the Fertility and Parental Care Hypothesis in Northwestern Namibia

Abstract

The fertility and parental care hypothesis interprets sex differences in some spatial-cognitive tasks as an adaptive mechanism to suppress women’s travel. In particular, the hypothesis argues that estrogens constrain travel during key reproductive periods by depressing women’s spatial-cognitive ability. Limiting travel reduces exposure to the dangers and caloric costs of navigating long distances into unfamiliar environments. Our study evaluates a collection of predictions drawn from the fertility and parental care hypothesis among the Twe and Himba people living in a remote region of Namibia. We find that nursing mothers travel more than women at any other stage of their reproductive career. This challenges the assumption that women limit travel during vulnerable and energetically demanding reproductive periods. In addition, we join previous studies in identifying a relationship between spatial ability and traveling among men, but not women. If spatial ability does not influence travel, hormonally induced changes in spatial ability cannot be used as a mechanism to reduce travel. Instead, it appears the fitness consequences of men’s travel is a more likely target for adaptive explanations of the sex differences in spatial ability, navigation, and range size.

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Notes

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    One complication with the annual mobility data is that women may have moved through more than one of the relevant reproductive stages in the past year. One woman who was breastfeeding at the time of her interview reported two visits away from home, both of which took place while she was pregnant. None of the other nursing mothers reported a unique visit that occurred prepartum. Similarly, none of the pregnant women reported unique visits that took place before they were pregnant, and none of the other women reported unique visits that took place before their youngest child was weaned. For this measure, we moved the one problematic case from the “lactating” to the “gestating” group.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to acknowledge the National Science Foundation SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities for supporting our research (Award #1329091), as well as the entire Spatial Cognition and Mobility (SCAN) group for their role in this project. In addition, we would like to thank the people of the Ovizorowe Valley for their hospitality and patience throughout the project.

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Correspondence to Layne Vashro.

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Vashro, L., Padilla, L. & Cashdan, E. Sex Differences in Mobility and Spatial Cognition. Hum Nat 27, 16–34 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-015-9247-2

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Keywords

  • Mobility
  • Spatial cognition
  • Parental care
  • Namibia
  • Fertility
  • Sex differences