Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 70, Issue 5, pp 761–775 | Cite as

Stability and strength of male-female associations in a promiscuous primate society

  • Alice Baniel
  • Guy Cowlishaw
  • Elise Huchard
Original Article


Close associations between adult males and lactating females occur in several promiscuous primate species. Benefits gained by males from such bonds may include increases in offspring fitness through paternal effort (the “mate-then-care” hypothesis) and/or subsequent mating opportunities with the female (the “care-then-mate” hypothesis). Heterosexual friendships between males and females have been described as tightly linked to the presence of a dependent infant, but few studies have investigated whether these associations may be longer, starting before an infant birth and lasting after its independence, and whether they may vary in strength across time and dyads. We investigated the stability and strength of heterosexual bonds in two groups of wild chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) to test whether male-female associations (1) last from offspring conception to independence, as expected under the mate-then-care hypothesis, (2) last after maternal cycling resumption and increase male mating success, as expected under the care-then-mate hypothesis, and (3) vary in strength depending on female reproductive state, age and rank. Our results show that most male-female bonds were already present at offspring conception, were maintained during pregnancy and lactation and disappeared when mothers resumed cycling. Moreover, heterosexual bonds were most intense during early lactation and for high-ranking females, and did not predict subsequent mating activity. Those findings favour the mate-then-care hypothesis, and confirm that male paternity assessment may, at least partially, rely on mating history. Overall, stable heterosexual friendships exist outside early lactation and last longer than previously thought, suggesting that male-female bonds could play an important and under-appreciated role on the social structure of groups in promiscuous primate societies.

Significance statement

Stable male-female bonds are rare in promiscuous mammals. Baboons are unusual in this respect: tight friendships have been described between adult males and lactating females and may protect infants against infanticide, but few studies have investigated whether these associations may start before an infant’s birth, or extend after its nutritional independence. We explored the stability and strength of heterosexual relationships in the chacma baboon, and found that friendships start before or at infant’s conception, are maintained throughout pregnancy, strengthen during lactation and disappear when mothers resume cycling. Such pattern of association suggests that male-female bonds represent paternal effort, and may arise from sexual activity before and during the conceptive cycle. Most females appear permanently associated with one male regardless of their reproductive state, suggesting that heterosexual bonds play an important, and under-appreciated, role in structuring the social organization of baboon societies.


Friendship Male-female association Paternal care Mating success Chacma baboon Papio ursinus 



We are thankful to the Tsaobis Baboon Project field workers in 2013 and 2014 for invaluable help in the field, in particular to Agata Staniewicz, Andrew Allan, Caitlin Miller, Chris Smith, Einat Bar-Ziv, Frieda Shikongo, Katie Hatton and Ignacio Abadia Suanzes-Carpegna. Our thanks also go to Alecia J. Carter, Alexander Lee and Cassandra Raby for running the field site in collaboration and for helpful discussions. We are very grateful to Alexandre Courtiol who wrote the mantel test script, as well as to Christof Neumann, Anja Widdig and one anonymous reviewer for their constructive comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Permission to work at Tsaobis Nature Park is kindly granted by the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement, thanks to the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre for affiliation, and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. We are also grateful to the Snyman and Wittreich families for permission to work on their land, and to Herman Strydom and Willem Odendaal for help in the field. This paper is a publication of the ZSL Institute of Zoology’s Tsaobis Baboon Project. Contribution ISEM 2016-050.

Compliance with ethical standards


AB was supported by a studentship from the “Ministère de l’Education Nationale, de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche”, France. Additional financial support was provided by a grant from the Primate Society of Great Britain.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

Supplementary material

265_2016_2100_MOESM1_ESM.docx (287 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 286 kb)


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, Unité Mixte de Recherche 5175, Centre National de la Recherche ScientifiqueMontpellier Cedex 5France
  2. 2.Institut des Sciences de l’Evolution de MontpellierUniversité de Montpellier, Place Eugène BataillonMontpellier Cedex 5France
  3. 3.Institute of ZoologyThe Zoological Society of LondonLondonUK

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