An international team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, conducted behavioral observations and collected urine samples for cortisol analysis of male chimpanzees of the Taï National Park, Ivory Coast, during periods of intense male-male competition. They showed that all males had higher stress levels during periods of increased male-male competition while aggression rates were actually lower during this time. This may indicate that in times of social instability animals refrain from aggressive actions to avoid escalation of conflicts and to promote group cohesion.
A high social status has substantial health and fitness benefits for males and females of many social animal species, including humans. However, attaining and maintaining dominance often comes with elevated energetic costs. “To investigate costs associated with dominance acquisition and maintenance, we examined potential sources of energetic and psychosocial stressors that male chimpanzees might be exposed to on a daily basis, and particularly during periods when males compete intensively over dominance status and mating opportunities,” says Anna Preis, first author of the study.
The authors found that urinary cortisol levels were higher in all males during unstable compared to stable dominance periods, whereas aggression rates showed the reversed pattern, with higher rates in stable periods. In contrast to a previous study in another chimpanzee population, dominance rank and urinary cortisol levels were not associated in either period. These findings indicate that status maintenance is not associated with elevated physiological stress for dominant Taï male chimpanzees, and suggest that status competition and the uncertainty of dominance relationships within the group exposes all males to psychosocial stress, despite lower rates of aggressive interactions. This supports a number of other studies showing that unpredictability in social relationships is particularly stressful in primates, – including in humans.