Males in many non-monogamous species have larger ranges than females do, a sex difference that has been well documented for decades and seems to be an aspect of male mating competition. Until recently, parallel data for humans have been mostly anecdotal and qualitative, but this is now changing as human behavioral ecologists turn their attention to matters of individual mobility. Sex differences in spatial cognition were among the first accepted psychological sex differences and, like differences in ranging behavior, are documented for a growing set of species. This special issue is dedicated to exploring the possible adaptive links between these cognitive and ranging traits. Multiple hypotheses, at various levels of analysis, are considered. At the functional (ultimate) level, a mating-competition hypothesis suggests that range expansion may augment mating opportunities, and a fertility-and-parental-care hypothesis suggests that range contraction may facilitate offspring provisioning. At a more mechanistic (proximate) level, differences in cue availability may support or inhibit particular sex-specific navigation strategies, and spatial anxiety may usefully inhibit travel that would not justify its costs. Studies in four different cultures—Twe, Tsimane, Yucatec Maya, and Faroese—as well as an experimental study using virtual reality tools are the venue for testing these hypotheses. Our hope is to stimulate more research on the evolutionary and developmental processes responsible for this suite of linked behavioral and cognitive traits.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Using published data from 11 species, Clint et al. (2012) undertook a cross-species test of the hypothesized relationship between mobility and spatial ability and claimed to find no relationship. Of course the power of this test was low, but more importantly, 4 of the 11 cases—all high-leverage data points (see their Fig. 2b)—may be misinterpreted. These 4 cases are briefly discussed below.
Two species (feral horses and rhesus macaques) are alleged to undermine the hypothesis because they show sex differences in spatial ability but lack sex differences in home range size. It is true that social groups move as units so that there will never be sex differences in range size within a social group. But to take the hypothesis seriously one must ask whether one sex travels farther in the formation of these groups. Rhesus macaque females very rarely leave their natal groups, but males emigrate from their natal groups shortly before puberty and may continue to change groups throughout their lives in search of mating opportunities (Melnick et al. 1984a, b). In horses, both sexes disperse from the natal group, but males actively seek and herd females to form harems (Cameron et al. 2009; Kaseda et al. 1997; Linklater et al. 1999), though a quantitative assessment of lifetime ranges is not currently available. Of these two cases, then, macaques actually support the range-size hypothesis and horses are at worst inconclusive.
Two more species—the cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) and a tucu-tucu (Ctenomys talarum)—supposedly undermine the hypothesis from the other side, showing sex differences in ranging behavior but lacking sex differences in spatial ability. Regarding the first of these species Clint et al. cite an article by Jozet-Alves et al. (2008) with the title “Sex Differences in Spatial Cognition in an Invertebrate: The Cuttlefish” in which the authors conclude: “Our data are consistent with the predictions of the range size hypothesis (Gaulin and FitzGerald 1986, 1989): a difference in range expansion between males and females is associated with a difference in spatial learning abilities” (Jozet-Alves et al. 2008:2052). Regarding the second, the cited source (Mastrangelo et al. 2010) explicitly notes that spatial ability was assessed outside the breeding season. That renders these data irrelevant since, even in species well documented to show the predicted range size-spatial ability relationship, sex differences in both range size and spatial ability disappear outside the breeding season (Galea et al. 1994, 1996; Gaulin and FitzGerald 1988). Thus, of this second pair of species, one species supports rather than undermines the hypothesized relationship between mobility and spatial ability. For the other species the data are inconclusive and should not have been construed as relevant evidence.
Without these four species (or with rhesus macaques and cuttlefish properly placed), their Fig. 2b shows the expected positive relationship between range size and spatial ability, and this relationship would have been even stronger had Clint et al. cited an article by Perdue et al. (2011), who explicitly tested the range-size hypothesis and also found the expected relationship using data on two other, closely related carnivore species.
Barkley, C. L., & Gabriel, K. I. (2007). Sex differences in cue perception in a visual scene: investigation of cue type. Behavioral Neuroscience, 121(2), 291–300.
Berenbaum, S. A., Bryk, K. L. K., & Beltz, A. M. (2012). Early androgen effects on spatial and mechanical abilities: evidence from congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Behavioral Neuroscience, 126(1), 86–96.
Berry, J. W. (1971). Ecological and cultural factors in spatial perceptual development. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 3(4), 324–336.
Binford, L. (1980). Willow smoke and dogs’ tails: Hunter-gatherer settlement systems and archaeological site formation. American Antiquity, 45(1), 4–20.
Brown, J. K. (1970). A note on the division of labor by sex. American Anthropologist, 72(5), 1073–1078.
Bryant, K. J. (1982). Personality correlates of sense of direction and geographic orientation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(6), 1318–1324.
Burke, A., Kandler, A., & Good, D. (2012). Women who know their place. Human Nature, 23(2), 133–148.
Byrnes, J. P., Miller, D. C., & Schafer, W. D. (1999). Gender differences in risk taking: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125(3), 367–383.
Cameron, E., Setsaas, T., & Linklater, W. (2009). Social bonds between unrelated females increase reproductive success in feral horses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, 13850–13853.
Campbell, A. (1999). Staying alive: evolution, culture, and women’s intrasexual aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22(02), 203–214.
Cashdan, E., Marlowe, F. W., Crittenden, A., Porter, C., & Wood, B. M. (2012). Sex differences in spatial cognition among Hadza foragers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(4), 274–284.
Cashdan, E., Kramer, K. L., Davis, H. E., Padilla, L., & Greaves, R. D. (2015). Mobility and navigation among the Yucatec Maya: sex differences reflect parental investment, not mating competition. Human Nature, 27(1). doi:10.1007/s12110-015-9250-7.
Choi, J., & Silverman, I. (1996). Sexual dimorphism in spatial behaviors: applications to route learning. Evolution and Cognition, 2(2), 165–171.
Choi, J., McKillop, E., Ward, M., & L’Hirondelle, N. (2006). Sex-specific relationships between route-learning strategies and abilities in a large-scale environment. Environment and Behavior, 38(6), 791–801.
Clint, E. K., Sober, E., Garland, T., Jr., & Rhodes, J. S. (2012). Male superiority in spatial navigation: adaptation or side effect? The Quarterly Review of Biology, 87(4), 289–313.
Coluccia, E., & Louse, G. (2004). Gender differences in spatial orientation: a review. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24(3), 329–340.
Croson, R., & Gneezy, U. (2009). Gender differences in preferences. Journal of Economic Literature, 47(2), 448–474.
Cross, C. P., Cyrenne D.-L. M., & Brown, G. R. (2013). Sex differences in sensation-seeking: a meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 3(2486).
Dabbs, J. M., Jr., Chang, E.-L., Strong, R. A., & Milun, R. (1998). Spatial ability, navigation strategy, and geographic knowledge among men and women. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(2), 89–98.
Dawson, J. L. M., Cheung, Y. M., & Lau, R. T. S. (1975). Developmental effects of neonatal sex hormones on spatial and activity skills in the white rat. Biological Psychology, 3(3), 213–229.
Del Giudice, M. (2014). Middle childhood: an evolutionary-developmental synthesis. Child Development Perspectives, 8(4), 193–200.
Ecuyer-Dab, I., & Robert, M. (2004a). Spatial ability and home-range size: examining the relationship in Western men and women (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 118(2), 217–231.
Ecuyer-Dab, I., & Robert, M. (2004b). Have sex differences in spatial ability evolved from male competition for mating and female concern for survival? Cognition, 91(3), 221–257.
Framenau, V. W. (2005). Gender specific differences in activity and home range reflect morphological dimorphism in wolf spiders (Araneae, Lycosidae). Journal of Arachnology, 33, 334–346.
Gagnon, K. (2015). Not all those who wander are lost: Characterizing sex differences in spatial exploration and their relationship to navigation ability. PhD dissertation, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
Gagnon, K. T., Cashdan, E. A., Stefanucci, J. K., & Creem-Regehr, S. H. (2015). Sex differences in exploration behavior and the relationship to harm avoidance. Human Nature, 27(1). doi:10.1007/s12110-015-9248-1.
Galea, L., & Kimura, D. (1993). Sex differences in route-learning. Personality and Individual Differences, 14(1), 53–65.
Galea, L., Kavaliers, M., Ossenkopp, K.-P., Innes, D., & Hargreaves, E. (1994). Sexually dimorphic spatial learning varies seasonally in two populations. Brain Research, 635, 18–26.
Galea, L., Kavaliers, M., & Ossenkopp, K.-P. (1996). Sexually dimorphic spatial learning in meadow voles Microtus pennsylvanicus and deer mice Peromyscus maniculatus. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 199, 195–200.
Gaulin, S. J. C. (1992). Evolution of sex difference in spatial ability. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 35, 125–151.
Gaulin, S., & FitzGerald, R. (1986). Sex differences in spatial ability: an evolutionary hypothesis and test. American Naturalist, 127(1), 74–88.
Gaulin, S., & FitzGerald, R. (1988). Home-range size as a predictor of mating systems in Microtus. Journal of Mammalogy, 69(2), 311–319.
Gaulin, S., & Fitzgerald, R. (1989). Sexual selection for spatial-learning ability. Animal Behaviour, 37(2), 322–331.
Gaulin, S., & Hoffman, H. (1988). Evolution and development of sex differences in spatial ability. In L. Betzig, M. Borgerhoff Mulder, & P. Turke (Eds.), Human reproductive behavior (pp. 129–152). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Geary, D. (2010). Male, female: The evolution of human sex differences. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Glaudas, X., & Rodrígues-Robles, J. A. (2011). Vagabond males and sedentary females: spatial ecology and mating system of the speckled rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchellii). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 103, 681–695.
Guigueno, M., Snow, D., Mac-Dougall-Shackleton, A., & Sherry, D. (2014). Female cowbirds have more accurate spatial memory than males. Biology Letters, 10, 20140026.
Halpern D. (2013). Sex differences in cognitive abilities. East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press.
Hampson, E., & Rovet, J. F. (2015). Spatial function in adolescents and young adults with congenital adrenal hyperplasia: clinical phenotype and implications for the androgen hypothesis. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 54, 60–70.
Harris, C. R., Jenkins, M., & Glaser, D. (2006). Gender differences in risk assessment: why do women take fewer risks than men. Judgment and Decision Making, 1(1), 48–63.
Hart, R. (1979). Children’s experience of place. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Hegarty, M., Montello, D. R., Richardson, A. E., Ishikawa, T., & Lovelace, K. (2006). Spatial abilities at different scales: individual differences in aptitude-test performance and spatial-layout learning. Intelligence, 34(2), 151–176.
Hewlett, B., van de Koppel, J. M., & Cavalli-Sforza, L. L. (1982). Exploration ranges of Aka pygmies of the Central African Republic. Man, 17(3), 418–430.
Hilton, C. E., & Greaves, R. D. (2008). Seasonality and sex differences in travel distance and resource transport in Venezuelan foragers. Current Anthropology, 49(1), 144–153.
Hines, M. (2003). Brain gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hurtado, A. M., Hawkes, K., Hill, K., & Kaplan, H. (1985). Female subsistence strategies among Ache hunter-gatherers of eastern Paraguay. Human Ecology, 13(1), 1–28.
Jones, C. M., Braithwaite, V. A., & Healy, S. D. (2003). The evolution of sex differences in spatial ability. Behavioral Neuroscience, 117(3), 403–411.
Joseph, R., Hess, S., & Birecree, E. (1978). Effects of hormone manipulation and exploration on sex differences in maze learning. Behavioral Biology, 24(3), 264–277.
Jozet-Alves, C., Modéran, J., & Dickel, L. (2008). Sex differences in spatial cognition in an invertebrate: the cuttlefish. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275, 2049–2054.
Kaseda, Y., Ogawa, H., & Khalil, A. (1997). Causes of natal dispersal and emigration and their effects on harem formation in Misaki feral horses. Equine Veterinary Journal, 29(4), 262–266.
Kelly, R. L. (1983). Hunter-gatherer mobility strategies. Journal of Anthropological Research, 39(3), 277–306.
Kimura, D. (2000). Sex and cognition. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Lancy, D. F., & Grove, A. M. (2011). Getting noticed: middle childhood in cross-cultural perspective. Human Nature, 22, 281–302.
Lane, J. E., Boutin, S., Gunn, M. R., & Coltman, D. W. (2009). Sexually selected behaviour: red squirrel males search for reproductive success. Journal of Animal Ecology, 78, 296–304.
Lawton, C. (1994). Gender differences in wayfinding strategies: relationship to spatial ability and spatial anxiety. Sex Roles, 30(11), 765–779.
Lawton, C., & Kallai, J. (2002). Gender differences in wayfinding strategies and anxiety about wayfinding: a cross-cultural comparison. Sex Roles, 47(9), 389–401.
Linklater, W., Cameron, E., Minot, E., & Stafford, K. (1999). Stallion harassment and the mating system of horses. Animal Behavior, 58, 295–306.
Linn, M. C., & Petersen, A. C. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: a meta-analysis. Child Development, 56, 1479–1498.
Maccoby, E. E., & Jacklin, C. N. (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
MacDonald, D., & Hewlett, B. (1999). Reproductive interests and forager mobility. Current Anthropology, 40(4), 501–524.
Malinowski, J. C. (2001). Mental rotation and real-world wayfinding. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 92(1), 19–30.
Mastrangelo, M., Schleich, C., & Zenuto, R. (2010). Spatial learning abilities in males and females of the subterranean rodent Ctenomys talarum. Ethology Ecology and Evolution, 22, 101–108.
Matthews, M. H. (1987). Gender, home range and environmental cognition. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 12(1), 43–56.
Melnick, D., Pearl, M., & Richard, A. (1984a). Male migration and inbreeding avoidance in wild rhesus monkeys. American Journal of Primatology, 7, 229–243.
Melnick, D., Jolly, C., & Kidd, K. (1984b). The genetics of a wild population of rhesus monkeys (macaca mulatta), I. Genetic variability within and between social groups. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 63, 341–360.
Miner, E. J., Gurven, M., Kaplan, H., & Gaulin, S. J. C. (2014). Sex difference in travel is concentrated in adolescence and tracks reproductive interests. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 281, 20141476. doi:10.1098/rspb.2014.1476.
Minta, S. C. (1993). Sexual differences in spatiotemporal interaction among badgers. Oecologia, 96, 402–409.
Moffat, S. D., Hampson, E., & Hatzipantelis, M. (1998). Navigation in a ‘virtual’ maze: sex differences and correlation with psychometric measures of spatial ability in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(2), 73–87.
Montello, D. R., Lovelace, K. L., Golledge, R. G., & Self, C. M. (1999). Sex-related differences and similarities in geographic and environmental spatial abilities. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 89(3), 515–534.
Munroe, R. L., & Munroe, R. H. (1971). Effect of environmental experience on spatial ability in an East African society. The Journal of Social Psychology, 83(1), 15–22.
Nerlove, S. B., Munroe, R. H., & Munroe, R. L. (1971). Effect of environmental experience on spatial ability: a replication. The Journal of Social Psychology, 84(1), 3–10.
Pavey, C., Goodship, N., & Geiser, F. (2003). Home range and spatial organisation of rock-dwelling carnivorous marsupial, Pseudantechinus macdonnellensis. Wildlife Research, 30(2), 135–142.
Perdue, B., Snyder, R., Zhihe, Z., Marr, M. J., & Maple, T. (2011). Sex differences in spatial ability: a test of the range size hypothesis in the order Carnivora. Biology Letters, 7(3), 380–383.
Puts, D. A., McDaniel, M. A., Jordan, C. L., & Breedlove, S. M. (2008). Spatial ability and prenatal androgens: meta-analyses of congenital adrenal hyperplasia and digit ratio (2d:4d) studies. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 37(1), 100–111.
Resnick, S. M., Berenbaum, S. A., Gottesman, I. I., & Bouchard, T. J. (1986). Early hormonal influences on cognitive functioning in congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Developmental Psychology, 22, 191–198.
Rovet, J., & Netley, C. (1982). Processing deficits in Turner’s syndrome. Developmental Psychology, 18(1), 77–94.
Sandstrom, N. J., Kaufman, J., & Huettel, S. A. (1998). Males and females use different distal cues in a virtual environment navigation task. Cognitive Brain Research, 6(4), 351–360.
Saucier, D. M., Green, S. M., Leason, J., MacFadden, A., Bell, S., & Elias, L. J. (2002). Are sex differences in navigation caused by sexually dimorphic strategies or by differences in the ability to use the strategies? Behavioral Neuroscience, 116(3), 403–410.
Schug, M. G. (2015). Navigational style, parental restrictiveness, and spatial reasoning: Wayfinding anxiety and childhood experience in the Faroe Islands. Human Nature, 27(1). doi:10.1007/s12110-015-9245-4.
Sear, R., & Mace, R. (2008). Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(1), 1–18.
Sellet, F., Greaves, R., & Yu, P. L. (Eds.). (2006). Archaeology and ethnoarchaeology of mobility. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Sherry, D., & Hampson, E. (1997). Evolution and the hormonal control of sexually- dimorphic spatial abilities in humans. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 1(2), 50–56.
Sherry, D. F., Forbes, M. R., Khurgel, M., & Ivy, G. O. (1993). Females have a larger hippocampus than males in the brood-parasitic brown-headed cowbird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 90, 7839–7843.
Silverman, I., Choi, J., Mackewn, A., Fisher, M., Moro, J., & Olshansky, E. (2000). Evolved mechanisms underlying wayfinding: further studies on the hunter-gatherer theory of spatial sex differences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21(3), 201–213.
Trumble, B. C., Gaulin, S. J. C., Dunbar, M. D., Kaplan, H., & Gurven, M. (2015). No sex or age difference in dead-reckoning ability among Tsimane forager-horticulturalists. Human Nature, 27(1). doi:10.1007/s12110-015-9246-3.
Vashro, L. (2015). Are sex differences in mobility all about mating? Paper presented at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society annual meeting, University of Missouri, Columbia MO.
Vashro, L., & Cashdan, E. (2015). Spatial cognition, mobility, and reproductive success in northwestern Namibia. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(2), 123–129.
Vashro, L., Padilla, L., & Cashdan, L. (2015). Sex differences in mobility and spatial cognition: a test of the fertility and parental care hypothesis in northwestern Namibia. Human Nature, 27(1). doi:10.1007/s12110-015-9247-2.
Voyer, D., Voyer, S., & Bryden, M. P. (1995). Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: a meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychological Bulletin, 117(2), 250–270.
Ward, S. L., Newcombe, N., & Overton, W. F. (1986). Turn left at the church, or three miles north: a study of direction giving and sex differences. Environment and Behavior, 18(2), 192–213.
Webley, P. (1981). Sex differences in home range and cognitive maps in eight-year old children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1, 293–302.
Whiting, B. B., & Edwards, C. P. (1992). Children of different worlds: The formation of social behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Williams, C. L., Barnett, A. L., & Meck, W. B. (1990). Organizational effects of early gonadal secretions on sexual differentiation in spatial memory. Behavioral Neuroscience, 104, 84–97.
About this article
Cite this article
Cashdan, E., Gaulin, S.J.C. Why Go There? Evolution of Mobility and Spatial Cognition in Women and Men. Hum Nat 27, 1–15 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-015-9253-4
- Spatial cognition
- Mating strategies
- Parenting strategies