Being the Big Baboon on Campus is a Stressful Business

By Valerie Ross | July 15, 2011 1:59 pm

Life at the top ain’t easy.

What’s the News: In the hardscrabble world of a baboon troop, being the alpha male has its perks: power, food, ample opportunities to woo the ladies. But all that status brings with it a great deal of stress, a new study shows, as the alpha male constantly scrambles to stay atop the social pyramid. The life of a second-in-command beta male—somewhat fewer perks but, the researchers found, a whole lot less stress—is starting to sound like the better deal.

How the Heck:

  • The researchers gathered samples of feces from 125 adult male baboons in Amboseli, Kenya, collecting more than 4,500 samples over nine years. They then measured the level of glucocorticoids—hormones that play a major role in the body’s stress response—in each sample to determine the baboons’ stress levels.
  • Alpha males’ stress levels, the samples showed, were high—as high as those of low-ranking males, who are constantly being bullied and deprived of access to food and mates. The alpha males do more than their share of fighting and mating, the scientists found; defending themselves and keeping others away from potential mates likely account for much of the added stress of high rank.
  • Beta males, meanwhile, showed much lower stress levels. In fact, so did all of what might be called a baboon troop’s middle management, the males who weren’t #1 but weren’t low ranking, either. The beta males had fairly good access to food and mates, without the alpha males’ constant struggle for dominance.
  • The social hierarchies of male baboons are subject to change, as usurpers take over the top spot. During such times of upheaval, the researchers found, the stress patterns in the troopstayed the same, though all the baboons showed a slight boost in glucocorticoid levels. What’s more, over the nine years of the study, individuals moved around the hierarchy—and still the ones who happened to be at the top or the bottom at any given point were most stressed, showing that social status, not individual differences, determine a particular baboon’s stress level.

What’s the Context:

  • Earlier research has shown that, in general, lower-ranking baboons are more stressed than their higher-ranking counterparts.
  • Short bursts of stress can be beneficial, but sustained stress wears an animal down, and has harmful effects on health. The constant stress of power, the researchers suggest, may help explain the high rate of turnover in the troop’s top spot.
  • These findings don’t really translate to that more familiar primate species, humans. We don’t have the same strict social hierarchy baboons do—plus, since we’re involved in so many different groups (jobs, families, teams, clubs) we each play many different roles.

Reference: Laurence R. Gesquiere, Niki H. Learn, M. Carolina M. Simao, Patrick O. Onyango, Susan C. Alberts, & Jeanne Altmann. “Life at the Top: Rank and Stress in Wild Male Baboons.” Science, July 15, 2011. DOI: 10.1126/science.1207120

Image: Flickr / Stig Nygaard

  • Crow

    Not sure why one would say these findings don’t translate into humans. Our job workplace seems a strong analogue.

  • Bob Snyder

    I agree with Crow, if you look at the big picture for humans, sure the analogy doesn’t hold because of the different group identities. But if you look at the individual on the level of the individual groups we are a part of such as the workplace, then it surely seems to fit.

  • Kiteyo

    Actually there a quite a few studies in the psychology field linking social status, testosterone, and stress in humans. Lookup some of Bob Josephs or JG Sellers ‘articles.


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