Baboon sexual swellings: Information content of size and color

James P. Higham, Ann M. MacLarnon, Caroline Ross, Michael Heistermann, Stuart Semple

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Primate sexual swellings are hormone-dependent sexual signals that play a key role in determining patterns of behavior. They are among the most conspicuous signals exhibited by any mammal, and their large size and bright coloration have fascinated evolutionary biologists for well over a century. A number of different adaptive hypotheses have been proposed for the evolution of sexual swellings, and there have been several recent attempts to test some of these using precise swelling measurements made in the field. Most of these studies have focused only on the size element of the swelling, and those that have measured other aspects of swellings, such as color, have done so only crudely. A focus solely on swelling size is inconsistent with most theoretical models of mate choice, which emphasize the importance of multiple cues within sexual signals. Here, we present data on baboon (Papio hamadryas anubis) sexual swellings, including measures of both swelling size and color, measured objectively using digital photography at Gashaka-Gumti National Park, Nigeria. We combined these measurements with detailed data on fecal progestogen and estrogen levels, and estimates of the timing of ovulation and the fertile period around ovulation based on those levels. We show that swelling color and size vary independently, and that, consistent with results in other species, swelling size contains information about the timing of ovulation and the fertile period. However, we show that swelling color does not contain such information. In addition, swelling size contains information about female parity, and we found some evidence to suggest that color may also contain such information. These results indicate that baboon sexual swellings may contain information about multiple aspects of female fertility. We discuss the implications of these results for understanding the nature of swellings as behavioral signals, and the role of swellings in mate choice.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)452-462
    Number of pages11
    JournalHormones and Behavior
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - Mar 2008


    • Coloration
    • Primate
    • Sexual selection
    • Signaling

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Endocrinology
    • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
    • Behavioral Neuroscience


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