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Horm Behav. 2007 Jan;51(1):114-25. Epub 2006 Oct 5.

Mechanisms of sexual selection: sexual swellings and estrogen concentrations as fertility indicators and cues for male consort decisions in wild baboons.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.


Male mate-guarding episodes ('consortships'), are taxonomically widespread, yet costly to individual males. Consequently, males should bias consortships toward females with whom the probability of conception is high. We combined data on consortships with visual scoring of sexual swellings and assays of fecal estrogen concentrations (fE) in a wild population of baboons (Papio cynocephalus) to test the hypotheses that sexual swellings are reliable indicators of (1) within-cycle timing of ovulation, (2) differences in conception probability among females that differ in maturational stage, and (3) conceptive versus non-conceptive cycles of parous females. We also evaluated whether adult males might rely on swellings or other estrogen-dependent signals (e.g., fE) for mate-guarding decisions. We found that sexual swellings reflected conception probability within and among cycles. Adult males limited their consortships to the turgescent phase of cycles, and consorted more with adult females than with newly cycling adolescents. The highest ranking (alpha) males discriminated more than did males of other ranks; they (1) limited their consortships to the 5-day peri-ovulatory period, (2) consorted more with adult than with adolescent females, and (3) consorted more with adult females on conceptive cycles than on non-conceptive cycles, all to a greater extent than did males of other ranks. Male mate choice based on sexual swellings and other estrogenic cues of fertility may result in sexual selection on these female traits and enhance dominance-based reproductive skew in males. Alpha males are the least constrained in their mating behavior and can best take advantage of these cues to mate selectively.

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