Powerful baboon males stressed out
July 15th, 2011
09:04 AM ET

Powerful baboon males stressed out

It's not easy being at the top. In the savannah baboon world, it seems that alpha males - those who have the highest status - are also stressed out, according to a new study in the journal Science.

And, stress can lead to negative health outcomes in primates, including humans, prior research has shown.

Among these baboons, alpha males have preferential access to food resources and to mates. If there's one fertile female in a group, the alpha male will mate with her.

So what is there to be stressed about?

It seems that alpha males have higher rates of fighting and courtship behaviors than the second-ranking "beta" males, said Laurence Gesquiere, researcher at Princeton University and study co-author. Both of these activities cost valuable energy, and could explain why their stress hormone levels are higher.

Courting a mate is serious business for an alpha male baboons.

"When female is fertile, the alpha male follows her everywhere. He's not eating as much as he should, because he's busy keeping an eye on her and following her," she said. "He has to push away all the other males who are going to try to mate with her.

Gesquiere and colleagues also looked at whether alpha males get groomed less by females, but that was not the case, either. Grooming has been shown to be a good coping mechanism for stress, but alpha and beta males seemed to receive about the same amount of grooming.

And although the study did not look at strictly psychological factors, they could also play a role, she said.

"They could also be stressed about losing their rank. Now that they are alpha, they can only go down," she said.

Followup studies might look at the health and survival of the alpha male, since elevated testosterone levels (observed among all high-ranking males) and stress hormone levels might reduce the baboons' lifespan.

It would also be interesting to see if female baboon stress levels correlate with their rank. Male baboons are at the top of the social hierarchy when they are between 8 and 10 years old, and then their status decreases with age. Females, on the other hand, they inherit a rank through their mother and stay the same; they hardly ever get challenged by other females for status.

And this research also points to avenues of research into stress in relation to human socioeconomic status or other kinds of ranks - for instance, the CEO vs. lower ranking employees in a company.

"I think it would be important in the future to try to look at stress hormone levels in humans, and really look at costs and benefits on different positions in the hierarchy," she said.

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Filed under: On Earth
soundoff (37 Responses)
  1. John Schwendler

    Oh, uh, never mind. I thought this was a story about Congress.

    July 16, 2011 at 5:17 pm |
  2. jim

    For a moment I thought the title was referring to Congress.

    July 16, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Factors

      My thoughts exactly, Jim.

      July 16, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  3. BigAl

    "It seems that alpha males have higher rates of fighting and courtship behaviors..."

    I have experienced "higher rates of fighting and courtship behaviors" throughout most of my life. Let me tell you about stress!

    July 16, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  4. Joe13

    this isn't hard to understand. you finish flinging the poo only to find that there's more poo to fling. and there's always more poo to fling. the grind never ends

    July 16, 2011 at 7:15 am |
    • Bobo

      ...don't forget there's always that Snooki creature chasing you around wanting SMOOSH-SMOOSH...

      July 16, 2011 at 7:57 am |
    • Black Piece Of Chicken 187

      These baboons are deprived of chicken.Case closed?

      July 16, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  5. Qev

    "... said I paid the COST! ... to be the BOSS... umm.. hmm... "–James Brown

    July 16, 2011 at 5:07 am |
  6. Al

    Send Obama there to deal with their stress....an ape and baboons should be able to communicated.

    July 16, 2011 at 4:36 am |
    • Qev

      Well, we know that you couldn't help, as there is no evidence of primates being able to communicate with ignorant, low-life, racist, trash (such as your self)... The apes are too much a higher life form.

      July 16, 2011 at 5:14 am |
    • T

      RACIST and uncalled for!

      July 16, 2011 at 6:43 am |
    • Tracy

      Classic!

      July 16, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • XXXXXX

      So, what are you saying, al?

      August 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  7. Beefburger

    But what about the GAY baboons? Why don't you report about THEIR stress? We need MORE EQUALITY in the baboon world! Why can't the alpha male choose a boy baboon to mate with? I see the Rethuglican fingerprints all over this one!

    July 16, 2011 at 2:46 am |
    • mindcrime

      All I see are dicks in your mouth.

      July 16, 2011 at 4:22 am |
    • Dannon

      Actually, there are many studies on the sexual relationships, be they hetero or homosexual, in many primate groups. Look up bonobos. The females have very interesting relations. Of course, there are many studies on satellite males in baboon kin groups that show homosexual practices. This is all anthro 102 or primate evolution 101.

      July 16, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • Beefburger

      I see that my sarcasm went unnoticed.

      July 16, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Susan

      Once the Baboons in California zoos are forced to sit through gay history class I'm sure they will be more tolerate and understanding.

      July 16, 2011 at 8:59 am |
      • Keylon

        A bit sruprseid it seems to simple and yet useful.

        July 23, 2011 at 12:43 am |
  8. clearfog

    Explains the Babooninator.

    July 16, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  9. Deb T

    These findings are in direct opposition to those from a 30 year long study done by a Stanford University researcher. I am inclined to suspect the validity of the above listed findings, since I am very certain of the methodology, credentials, sampling, and duration of the Stanford studies and staff. Please do some investigation into a subject before posting such stories?

    July 16, 2011 at 1:55 am |
    • L14

      Yes, the research was done by Princeton researchers, whose "credentials" are CLEARLY inferior to the "credentials" of the Stanford staff. Please actually read the article cited before leaping to such egregious conclusions about the validity of the study and its researchers. A link to the study is provided in the news article.

      July 16, 2011 at 2:38 am |
    • Beefburger

      Stanford girls give better hummers than Princeton girls, BE PROUD!

      July 16, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  10. bannister

    I always liked being second from the top. Good perks, less stress.

    July 16, 2011 at 1:14 am |
    • clearfog

      Greater chance of an STD.

      July 16, 2011 at 2:31 am |
  11. JoJo

    Whoops, I thought this was going to be another commentary about the abysmal failure of the Republican party. (exits stage left)

    July 16, 2011 at 12:41 am |
    • Deb T

      lol......and more loling.....and just a wee bit more loling....okay, I'm done.

      July 16, 2011 at 1:58 am |
  12. JR

    Well, if everyone looked and made fun at my pink butt all day, I would be stressed out too.

    July 16, 2011 at 12:22 am |
    • Sunshine

      Gee willkeirs, that\'s such a great post!

      July 23, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  13. Paganguy

    To relieve stress, they should do like a recent president of ours: drink and snort.

    July 15, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Patrick

      Well if it works for one baboon why not another.

      July 15, 2011 at 11:28 pm |
    • collins61

      Is that the best you have Patrick?

      July 15, 2011 at 11:46 pm |
      • Patrick

        I feel like I just got slapped by a virtual glove.

        July 16, 2011 at 12:08 am |
  14. Logan9773

    Oh, this isn't about the budget fight?

    July 15, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Patrick

      Bravo sir.........bravo. Well played.

      July 15, 2011 at 11:27 pm |
  15. Xerxes 2011

    Yup, the Alpha male says to himself "d@m it, I cant keep all this puh$$y to myself, but i cant let no other weenie get my ladies! but at least they dont talk my ear off like human women, thank god or id jump off the highest tree or go pick a fight with a tiger"

    July 15, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  16. Ben Cook

    I'm Ben Cook and I go to Wabash College.

    July 15, 2011 at 10:36 pm |

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