Male characteristics as predictors of genital color and display variation in vervet monkeys

Mirjam M.I. Young, Sandra Winters, Christopher Young, Brigitte M. Weiß, Jolyon Troscianko, André Ganswindt, Louise Barrett, S. Peter Henzi, James P. Higham, Anja Widdig

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Abstract: In the animal kingdom, conspicuous colors are often used for inter- and intra-sexual communication. Even though primates are the most colorful mammalian taxon, many questions, including what potential information color signals communicate to social partners, are not fully understood. Vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) are ideal to examine the covariates of color signals. Males have multi-colored genitals, which they present during distinctive male-male interactions, known as the “Red-White-and-Blue” (RWB) display, but the genitals are also visible across a variety of other contexts, and it is unclear what this color display signals to recipients. We recorded genital color presentations and standardized digital photos of male genitals (N = 405 photos) over one mating season for 20 adult males in three groups at the Samara Private Game Reserve, South Africa. We combined these with data on male characteristics (dominance, age, tenure length, injuries, and fecal glucocorticoid metabolite concentrations). Using visual modeling methods, we measured single colors (red, white, blue) but also the contrasts between colors. We assessed the frequency of the RWB genital display and male variation in genital coloration and linked this to male characteristics. Our data suggest that the number of genital displays increased with male dominance. However, none of the variables investigated explained the inter- and intra-individual variation in male genital coloration. These results suggest that the frequency of the RWB genital display, but not its color value, is related to dominance, providing valuable insights on covariation in color signals and their display in primates. Significance statement: Conspicuous colors in animals often communicate individual quality to mates and rivals. By investigating vervet monkeys, a primate species in which males present their colorful genitals within several behavioral displays, we aim to identify the covariates of such colorful signals and their behavioral display. Using visual modeling methods for the color analysis and combining behavioral display data and color data with male characteristics, we found that high-ranking males displayed their colorful genitals more frequently than lower-ranking ones. In contrast, color variation was not influenced by male dominance, age, tenure length, or health. Our results can serve as a basis for future investigations on the function of colorful signals and behavioral displays, such as a badge of status or mate choice in primates.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Article number14
    JournalBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Feb 1 2020


    • Chlorocebus pygerythrus
    • Color contrasts
    • Dominance rank
    • Male characteristics
    • Multi-component color signal
    • Red-White-and-Blue display

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
    • Animal Science and Zoology


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