Life is tough for the top baboon. Sure, you get the best food and girl baboons. But there’s also all that pressure to defend your status.
Maybe, a new study suggests, being No. 2 is better — offering similar opportunities with less stress. At least among baboons.
Along with colleagues, Laurence R. Gesquiere of Princeton University studied wild baboons in Africa over nine years and found the top-ranked, or alpha, males had the highest levels of both sex hormones and stress hormones.
The beta males, the next ones down in the hierarchy, had similar opportunities to get food and get together with females, the researchers found. But while the beta males had levels of sex hormones similar to the alphas, their stress hormones were markedly less than the alphas, the researchers reported last week in the journal Science.
So, given that baboons are related to humans, what does this tell us about people? Not much, says Robert M. Sapolsky, a stress expert and biology professor at Stanford University, who called the comparison sheer speculation at this point.
“A baboon troop is not a corporation with an executive — alpha male or otherwise — making decisions,” said Sapolsky, who was not part of the research team.
Gesquiere said that when high status comes with both high costs and benefits, including physiological stress in human or nonhuman groups, the result may either be less time in the high-status position or cumulative “wear and tear” that affects long-term health.