Female reproductive signaling, and male mating behavior, in the olive baboon

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

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Baboon sexual swellings are among the largest and most colorful signals displayed by any mammal, and many baboon studies have shown an association between sexual swellings and both female and male sexual behavior. However, the extent to which female behavior and sexual swellings combine to signal the timing of ovulation and the fertile period to males, and the extent to which males use these and other signals when determining patterns of mating behavior, remain key topics of research. Here we assess the social and sexual behavior of both female and male olive baboons with respect to detailed measures of swelling size made from digital photographs, measures of fecal progestogen and estrogen levels, and estimates of the timing of ovulation and the fertile period based on those levels. Female aggression and grooming behavior were unrelated to fecal progestogen and estrogen levels, but there were some significant relationships between these hormonal measures and presenting behaviors. Measures of female behavior collected during the study did not appear to reveal the timing of ovulation or the fertile period. Male consortship behavior was closely tied to fine-scale changes in sexual swelling size, but copulation behavior was not. Copulation behavior of consorting males was, however, linked to the timing of both ovulation and the fertile period, suggesting that males did have knowledge about these timings. Together these results suggest that males used fine-scale swelling size changes when deciding when to consort, but that consorting males did not use fine-scale swelling size changes in deciding when to copulate. We propose that swelling size may advertise the period during which males should consort with females, with other signals available only from closer inspection then used by consorting males to assess the timing of the fertile period more accurately. An important implication of this interpretation is that different males may have access to different signals of ovulation at any one time. Such a system would allow females to offer different males different information simultaneously, perhaps offering a solution to the 'female dilemma' of how females can simultaneously assure and confuse paternity in multi-male societies.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)60-67
    Number of pages8
    JournalHormones and Behavior
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - Jan 2009


    • Endocrine analysis
    • Primate
    • Sexual selection
    • Signaling

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Endocrinology
    • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
    • Behavioral Neuroscience


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