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Horm Behav. 2003 Jan;43(1):67-82.

Are subordinates always stressed? A comparative analysis of rank differences in cortisol levels among primates.

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Department of Obstetrics/Gynecology, University of Wisconsin, Madison,WI 53706, USA.


Among primate species there is pronounced variation in the relationship between social status and measures of stress physiology. An informal meta-analysis was designed to investigate the basis of this diversity across different primate societies. Species were included only if a substantial amount of published information was available regarding both social behavior and rank-related differences in stress physiology. Four Old World and three New World species met these criteria, including societies varying from small-group, singular cooperative breeders (common marmoset and cotton top tamarin) to large-troop, multi-male, multi-female polygynous mating systems (rhesus, cynomolgus, talapoin, squirrel monkeys, and olive baboon). A questionnaire was formulated to obtain information necessary to characterize the stress milieu for individuals in particular primate societies. We standardized cortisol values within each species by calculating the ratio of basal cortisol concentrations of subordinates to those of dominants in stable dominance hierarchies and expressing the ratio as a percentage (relative cortisol levels). The meta-analysis identified two variables that significantly predicted relative cortisol levels: subordinates exhibited higher relative cortisol levels when they (1). were subjected to higher rates of stressors, and (2). experienced decreased opportunities for social (including close kin) support. These findings have important implications for understanding the different physiological consequences of dominant and subordinate social status across primate societies and how social rank may differ in its behavioral and physiological manifestations among primate societies.

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