LOS ANGELES – Think it’s easy at the top? Turns out chasing females, putting down underlings and generally maintaining one’s social status can be very stressful.
If you’re a baboon, that is. A nine-year study tracking five troops in Kenya found that the top-ranked alpha males had more stress than the second-place beta males. In fact, the top dog – er, baboon – was just as on-edge as those unfortunate primates at the bottom of the totem pole.
“Being at the top may not be all it’s cracked up to be,” said Thore Bergman, a biological psychologist at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study.
Researchers from Princeton University and the Institute of Primate Research in Nairobi, Kenya, started to figure this out by following the baboons and snatching the adult males’ fresh poop. Those droppings were preserved in ethanol and analyzed in a lab to look for metabolites of testosterone and the stress hormone glucocorticoid, which helps the body gear up to deal with an immediate threat.
After examining more than 4,500 samples, the research team discovered that a baboon’s stress level dropped as his rank rose – except for the alpha males. The top baboons had 10 percent more glucocorticoid than their runners-up, and matched those of the lowest-ranked baboons. (Testosterone levels, predictably, rose with rank.) The findings were published online Thursday in the journal Science.
Lead author Laurence Gesquiere, a Princeton endocrinologist, had expected to find that the advantages of being at the top – better access to food and fertile females – would translate into a less fraught existence. “I was very surprised to see high levels of stress,” she said.
That strain is probably because of the effort required to stay at the top of the heap – after all, Gesquiere said, fending off challenges and courting females takes time and energy. Lower-ranking baboons, on the other hand, probably experience stress for different reasons, including less access to food and the tendency to get thrashed by socially superior peers.
The results from baboons may not necessarily apply to people, cautioned Martin Muller, a University of New Mexico primatologist who was not involved in the study. Sure, CEOs often have stressful jobs, but human social groups are complex. They frequently mask the pecking order and provide more than one shot at being the alpha male, Muller said: “You can have a crappy job but be the best tennis player at your tennis club.”