Prenatal maternal stress effects on the development of primate social behavior

  • Oliver SchülkeEmail author
  • Julia Ostner
  • Andreas Berghänel
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. An evolutionary perspective on the development of primate sociality


Prenatal developmental plasticity in response to various environmental and social adversities can affect multiple aspects of offspring phenotype including social behavior strategies with effects that can last into adulthood. Here, we (1) identify adaptive social behavior strategies and their underlying mechanisms as potential targets of developmental plasticity in primates, (2) derive predictions about social behavior outcomes of prenatal adversity from different types of evolutionary models, (3) review the primate evidence for prenatal stress effects on offspring cognitive function, social, and non-social behavior, and (4) discuss avenues for future research. The scarce evidence currently available points towards increased distress behavior, particularly in infant offspring, and reductions of activity, exploration, and affiliative behavior in response to experimental prenatal adversity. Not all effects are stable, the results do not replicate well, and, for the most part, the current data cannot be used to test predictions of evolutionary models because relevant aspects of social behavior were not quantified and not assessed in the complex social environments they evolved for. More comprehensive research in developmental plasticity needs to incorporate sex differences and the interaction of effects from different sensitive periods including adolescence. Moreover, future research needs to assess the role of social buffering in mediating intergenerational effects and trade-offs between the pace of life and social cognitive performance.


Behavioral plasticity Early adversity Life history Pace-of-life syndrome Social buffering 



We thank Anja Widdig and Federica Amici for the invitation to contribute to the topical collection on Primate Social Development, Melanie Dammhahn for sharing thoughts on POLS in the context of prenatal stress effects, two anonymous reviewers for very constructive comments, and members of the DFG Research Unit FOR 2136 Sociality and Health in Primates as well as members of the Leibniz Science Campus Primate Cognition for discussion.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Behavioral EcologyUniversity of GoettingenGoettingenGermany
  2. 2.Research Group Primate Social Evolution, German Primate CenterLeibniz Institute for Primate ResearchGoettingenGermany
  3. 3.Leibniz Science Campus Primate Cognition, German Primate CenterLeibniz Institute for Primate ResearchGoettingenGermany
  4. 4.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of New MexicoAlbuquerqueUSA
  5. 5.Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology - Domestication Laboratory, Department of Interdisciplinary Life SciencesUniversity of Veterinary Medicine ViennaViennaAustria

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