Life at the Top: Alpha males exhibit much higher stress hormone levels

Life at the Top: Rank and Stress in Wild Male Baboons

Laurence R. Gesquiere1,*, Niki H. Learn1, M. Carolina M. Simao1, Patrick O. Onyango1, Susan C. Alberts2,3 Jeanne Altmann

1 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544. USA.
2 Department of Biology, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA.
3 Institute of Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya.
4 Department of Veterinary Anatomy and Physiology, University of Nairobi, Chiromo Campus, Post Office Box 30197 00100, Nairobi, Kenya.


In social hierarchies, dominant individuals experience reproductive and health benefits, but the costs of social dominance remain a topic of debate. Prevailing hypotheses predict that higher-ranking males experience higher testosterone and glucocorticoid (stress hormone) levels than lower-ranking males when hierarchies are unstable but not otherwise. In this long-term study of rank-related stress in a natural population of savannah baboons (Papio cynocephalus), high-ranking males had higher testosterone and lower glucocorticoid levels than other males, regardless of hierarchy stability. The singular exception was for the highest-ranking (alpha) males, who exhibited both high testosterone and high glucocorticoid levels. In particular, alpha males exhibited much higher stress hormone levels than second-ranking (beta) males, suggesting that being at the very top may be more costly than previously thought.


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