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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 21:20 EDT

Alpha Males Show More Signs Of Stress Than Beta Males

July 15, 2011

Being the king of the hill isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, according to a recent study on the hierarchy of baboon groups..

Laurence R. Gesquiere of Princeton University, and colleagues, studying wild baboons in Africa for nine years found that the top-ranked alpha males had the highest levels of both sex hormones and stress hormones.

Second-in-command, or beta males, we found to have similar opportunities as alpha males and were still able to obtain food and choose among more eligible females, the researchers found. However while the beta males had levels of sex hormones similar to the alphas, their stress hormones were markedly less than the alphas, they report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

High status comes with both high costs and benefits, including physiological stress in human or nonhuman groups, the result may either be a less time in the high status position or cumulative “wear and tear” that affects long-term health.

Detailed studies of status-specific costs and benefits are important tasks for the future, Gesquiere said. An earlier theory called “executive stress syndrome has been shown to have been flawed, and baboon societies do not provide a basis to resurrect it.”

Stress is a major factor in living a healthy life and has been connected to heart disease, cancer and lower life spans.

Professor Susan Alberts tells the Telegraph, “We’ve known for decades that alpha males have an advantage in reproduction, but these results show that life at the top has a real downside, and that being an alpha male comes at a real cost.”

The stress is likely to be tied to the energy needed to maintain their social position rather than psychological factors, with alpha males more likely to fight than beta males.

Professor Jeanne Altmann, who runs the laboratory in Princeton, explains, “Baboons are likely to be good models to provide insights for identifying the ideal position in a complex society under different conditions.”

“Humans also live in stratified societies, and social status is well known to be associated with some but not all health outcomes in humans. It has been difficult to identify many of the mechanisms behind these associations.”

“Our results point to the need for research that will identify and evaluate the specific costs and benefits of various status positions, in various species, types of organizations and groups, and under different ecological conditions.”

Image Caption: An adult male peacefully resting on a rock early in the morning. Credit: Catherine Markham, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Dept., Princeton University

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