Male members of primate species that form multi-male groups typically invest considerable effort into attaining and maintaining high dominance rank. Aggressive behaviors are frequently employed to acquire and maintain dominance status, and testosterone has been considered the quintessential physiological moderator of such behaviors. Testosterone can alter both neurological and musculoskeletal functions that may potentiate pre-existing patterns of aggression. However, elevated testosterone levels impose several costs, including increased metabolic rates and immunosuppression. Cortisol also limits immune and reproductive functions.
To improve understanding of the relationships between dominance rank, hormones and infection status in nonhuman primates, we collected and analyzed 67 fecal samples from 22 wild adult male chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) at Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda. Samples were analyzed for cortisol and testosterone levels as well as intestinal parasite prevalence and richness. 1,700 hours of observation data were used to determine dominance rank of each animal. We hypothesized that dominance rank would be directly associated with fecal testosterone and cortisol levels and intestinal parasite burden.
Fecal testosterone (but not cortisol) levels were directly associated with dominance rank, and both testosterone and cortisol were directly associated with intestinal parasite richness (number of unique species recovered). Dominance rank was directly associated with helminth (but not protozoan) parasite richness, so that high ranking animals had higher testosterone levels and greater helminth burden.
One preliminary interpretation is that the antagonist pleiotropic effects of androgens and glucocorticoids place a cost on attaining and maintaining high dominance rank in this species. Because of the costs associated with elevated steroid levels, dominance status may be an honest signal of survivorship against helminth parasites.