The Alpha Male and his Wingmen

John Hawks introduces a new paper in Current Biology with a not too surprising conclusion on male chimpanzee behavior and coalition forming. The title, “Male chimpanzees exchange political support for mating opportunities,” is pretty descriptive. The abstract gives us a bit more,

Male chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, differ from males in most other mammalian taxa because they remain in their natal communities throughout their lives, form close bonds with one another, and cooperate in a range of activities. However, males also compete fiercely for status within their groups and, and high rank enhances male reproductive success. Males rely partly on coalitions to achieve and maintain status, and shifts in male alliances can have dramatic political effects. It is not known what benefits are obtained by low-ranking coalition partners. Here we report that the highest-ranking (alpha) male in one well-studied community of chimpanzees rewarded his allies by allowing them preferential access to mates.

The chimps that were studied in the 22 month period of observation, are the Kanyawara community of chimpanzees. Observing ten males,

“the alpha male in the Kanyawara community selectively tolerated mating by his allies and exchanged mating tolerance for support in conflicts. The alpha male in this community was a singularly important trading partner because of the disproportionately high value of his mating tolerance.”

So there you have it, male chimpanzees lower in rank to the alpha form coalitions with the alpha to gain access to mating. For the alpha male, having some wingmen, ensures his status in the pecking order as well as boosts his access to mate. Everyone wins.

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