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Being the boss baboon is stressful

An adult male peacefully resting on a rock early in the morning.
[Image courtesy of Catherine Markham]

Boss baboons, the alpha males at the very top of wild baboon society, have higher stress hormone levels than second high ranking males, a new study in the journal Science reports. The findings hint that being the boss isn't always fun, and can sometimes be tiring and hard.

Life at the top has many perks for alpha male baboons, including better access to resources like food. But a nine year study of hormone levels in wild baboons shows there's more to this story.

By testing hormone levels from feces samples, Jeanne Altmann from Princeton University and colleagues found that alpha males have higher stress hormone and lower testosterone levels than the second highest ranked or beta males below them--even in times of stability.

Surprisingly, alpha male stress levels are similar to those found in low-ranked males. The authors surmise that the cause of stress for these two male classes are probably different: alpha male stress likely comes from having to fight to preserve their position, while males in the lowest rank of society experience stress related to access to food and other resources.

The results suggest that the top rank in animal (and possibly human) societies may have unique costs and benefits to be further explored.