Original Paper

Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 63, Issue 9, pp 1331-1344

First online:

“Friendships” between new mothers and adult males: adaptive benefits and determinants in wild baboons (Papio cynocephalus)

  • Nga NguyenAffiliated withDepartment of Conservation & Science, Cleveland Metroparks ZooDepartment of Biology, Case Western Reserve UniversityDepartment of Anthropology, California State University Fullerton Email author 
  • , Russell C. Van HornAffiliated withConservation & Research for Endangered Species, Zoological Society of San Diego
  • , Susan C. AlbertsAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Duke UniversityInstitute for Primate Research, National Museums of Kenya
  • , Jeanne AltmannAffiliated withInstitute for Primate Research, National Museums of KenyaDepartment of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Princeton UniversityDepartment of Animal Physiology and Veterinary Medicine, University of Nairobi

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Close associations between adult males and lactating females and their dependent infants are not commonly described in non-monogamous mammals. However, such associations [sometimes called “friendships” (Smuts 1985)] are regularly observed in several primate species in which females mate with multiple males during the fertile period. The absence of mating exclusivity among “friends” suggests that males should invest little in infant care, raising questions about the adaptive significance of friendship bonds. Using data from genetic paternity analyses, patterns of behavior, and long-term demographic and reproductive records, we evaluated the extent to which friendships in four multi-male, multi-female yellow baboon (Papio cynocephalus) groups in Amboseli, Kenya represent joint parental care of offspring or male mating effort. We found evidence that mothers and infants benefited directly from friendships; friendships provided mother–infant dyads protection from harassment from other adult and immature females. In addition, nearly half of all male friends were the genetic fathers of offspring and had been observed mating with mothers during the days of most likely conception for those offspring. In contrast, nearly all friends who were not fathers were also not observed to consort with the mother during the days of most likely conception, suggesting that friendships between mothers and non-fathers did not result from paternity confusion. Finally, we found no evidence that prior friendship increased a male’s chances of mating with a female in future reproductive cycles. Our results suggest that, for many male–female pairs at Amboseli, friendships represented a form of biparental care of offspring. Males in the remaining friendship dyads may be trading protection of infants in exchange for some resources or services not yet identified. Our study is the first to find evidence that female primates gain social benefits from their early associations with adult males.


Male–female associations Parental care Mating effort Infant harassment