Reduced reproductive function in wild baboons (Papio hamadryas anubis) related to natural consumption of the African black plum (Vitex doniana)

James P. Higham, Caroline Ross, Ymke Warren, Michael Heistermann, Ann M. MacLarnon

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Several authors have suggested that the consumption of plant compounds may have direct effects on wild primate reproductive biology, but no studies have presented physiological evidence of such effects. Here, for two troops of olive baboons (Papio hamadryas anubis) at Gashaka-Gumti National Park, Nigeria, we show major seasonal increases in levels of fecal progesterone metabolites in females, and provide evidence that this is linked to the consumption of natural plant compounds. Increases in fecal progestogen excretion occurred seasonally in all females, in all reproductive states, including lactation. Detailed feeding data on the study animals showed that only one food species is consumed by both troops at the time of observed progestogen peaks, and at no other times of the year: the African black plum, Vitex doniana. Laboratory tests demonstrated the presence of high concentrations of progestogen-like compounds in V. doniana. Together with published findings linking the consumption of a related Vitex species (Vitex agnus castus) to increased progestogen levels in humans, our data suggest that natural consumption of V. doniana was a likely cause of the observed increases in progestogens. Levels of progestogen excretion in the study baboons during periods of V. doniana consumption are higher than those found during pregnancy, and prevent the expression of the sexual swelling, which is associated with ovulatory activity. As consortship and copulatory activity in baboons occur almost exclusively in the presence of a sexual swelling, V. doniana appears to act on cycling females as both a physiological contraceptive (simulating pregnancy in a similar way to some forms of the human contraceptive pill) and a social contraceptive (preventing sexual swelling, thus reducing association and copulation with males). The negative effects of V. doniana on reproduction may be counter-balanced by the wide-range of medicinal properties attributed to plants in this genus. This is the first time that physiological evidence has been presented of direct effects of plant consumption on the reproductive biology of wild primates.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)384-390
    Number of pages7
    JournalHormones and Behavior
    Issue number3
    StatePublished - Sep 2007


    • Infertility
    • Plant steroids
    • Primate
    • Reproductive physiology
    • Sexual swelling

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Endocrinology
    • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
    • Behavioral Neuroscience


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