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Horm Behav. 2004 Aug;46(2):204-15.

Female sexual swelling size, timing of ovulation, and male behavior in wild West African chimpanzees.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig 04103, Germany.


Conspicuous swellings of the perineal skin can be observed in females of many catharrine primate species particularly during the middle stages of the ovarian cycle. The functional significance of this trait remains poorly understood. Recently, two hypotheses, the "reliable indicator" hypothesis and the "graded signal" hypothesis that take into account not only the pattern but also the exaggerated size of sexual swellings, have gained attention. Here we test several predictions made by these hypotheses by combining (i) direct size measures (from video captures) of female sexual swellings with (ii) urinary hormone data to indicate timing of ovulation through enzyme immunoassay measurements of estrone conjugates and pregnanediol glucuronide (PdG) and (iii) behavioral observations of male mating efforts throughout 36 ovulatory cycles in 12 wild chimpanzees. We are able to show that (i) even within the traditionally defined maximum swelling period, further slight increases in swelling size indicate approaching ovulation, and (ii) that male mating interest changes according to the changes in swelling size. Furthermore, absolute swelling size during the periovulatory period increases and the alpha male associates more with females as the number of cycles to conception decreases. Finally, when having the choice between several "maximally" tumescent females, the alpha male prefers the female that is in the fertile phase of her cycle rather than that with the biggest swelling at that time. Thus, most of our findings are in line with the predictions of the graded signal hypothesis while none of them would support the reliable indicator hypothesis.

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