A weighted-average model, which reliably estimates endocranial volume from three external measurements of the neurocranium of extant taxa in the mammalian order Carnivora, was tested for its applicability to fossil taxa by comparing model-estimated endocranial volumes to known endocast volumes. The model accurately reproduces endocast volumes for a wide array of fossil taxa across the crown radiation of the Carnivora, three stem carnivoramorphan taxa, and Pleistocene fossils of two extant species. Applying this model to fossil taxa without known endocast volumes expanded the sample of fossil taxa with estimated brain volumes in the carnivoran suborder Caniformia from 11 to 60 taxa. This then allowed a comprehensive assessment of the evolution of relative brain size across this clade. An allometry of brain volume to body mass was calculated on phylogenetically independent contrasts for the set of extant taxa, and from this, log-transformed encephalization quotients (logEQs) were calculated for all taxa, extant, and fossil. A series of Mann–Whitney tests demonstrated that the distributions of logEQs for taxa early in caniform evolutionary history possessed significantly lower median logEQs than extant taxa. Median logEQ showed a pronounced shift around the Miocene–Pliocene transition. Support tests, based on likelihood ratios, demonstrated that the variances of these distributions also were significantly lower than among modern taxa, but logEQ variance increased gradually through the history of the clade, not abruptly. Reconstructions of ancestral logEQs using weighted squared-change parsimony demonstrate that increased encephalization is observed across all major caniform clades (with the possible exception of skunks) and that these increases were achieved in parallel, although an “ancestor-descendant differencing” method could not rule out drift as a hypothesis. Peculiarities in the estimated logEQs for the extinct caniform family Amphicyonidae were also investigated; these unusual patterns are likely due to a unique allometry in scaling brain to body size in this single clade.
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