JULY 26, 2011
Thousands of African baboon fecal samples reveal that alpha males have elevated stress levels, indicating that a high social rank—long considered a benefit in many animal societies—actually brings conflict and stress that can take a mental and physical toll.Why should Americans care about this rather bizarre if not downright ridiculous discovery? Because U.S. tax dollars are financing the costly and ongoing study of male baboons in Kenya’s Amboseli Basin. In the last few years alone, Uncle Sam has given a group of college researchers north of $1.4 million to study the behavior of baboons in Africa.The money has been distributed by the nation’s steward of medical and behavioral research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency that funds science research and education. Combined their annual budgets total nearly $40 billion with a big chunk going to projects that seem as wasteful as studying monkeys eight time zones away.For instance, last year the NSF came under fire for giving a New York theater company $700,000 to finance a play about climate change and a Montana university $141,000 to study dinosaur eggs and other fossils in Hangzhou, China. The allocations came on the heels of a scathing inspector general report to Congress that revealed NSF employees spend significant portions of their workdays watching and downloading pornography without ever being disciplined.The baboon study is ongoing and has been financed by U.S. taxpayers for nearly a decade. Its latestearth shattering discovery involving alpha males was proudly publicized by both government agencies this week because it defies myths about social hierarchy. Essentially it reveals that life on top isn’t all it’s billed to be since it can be stressful and high levels of stress hormones can suppress immune function and lead to cardiovascular problems like hypertension, coronary heart disease and stroke.How did the brilliant Ivy League baboon expert and her colleague from a separate private university figure this out? By collecting more than 4,500 fecal samples from 125 male baboons. The poop was tested for metabolites of testosterone and the stress hormone glucocorticoid and later compared with the animals’ social rank (a previous government-funded study collected weather, life-history and behavioral data).They found that high-ranking males generally had higher testosterone and lower glucocorticoid levels than other males and that alpha males had much higher levels of glucocorticoid than beta males. This was true when the social hierarchy was stable and when it was undergoing changes. In a nutshell, the study yielded a “surprising downside” to being the alpha male. This “insight” will have implications for future studies of how social hierarchies influence health and wellness since baboons are genetically closely related to humans and they live in highly complex societies.
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