A male chacma baboon sits in the Cape peninsula outside Cape Town, South Africa
A male chacma baboon sits in the Cape peninsula outside Cape Town, South Africa Reuters

A 9-year study of wild baboons in Kenya by Princeton University and the Institute of Primate Research may turn conventional assumptions of alphas males upside down.

The study found that alpha males have high testosterone levels, which allows them to dominate other baboons, get access to more food, and attract better mates. This is expected.

Surprisingly, though, the alpha males also have high levels of stress hormone glucocorticoid, which scientists measured from their feces samples. In fact, the stress of alpha baboons was on par with low-ranking baboons.

The convention wisdom is that access to food and females provides life security and thus less stress for dominant males. Conversely, weak males who are constantly threatened by starvation and physical violence from stronger males are thought to be more stressed.

The study did find that stress levels were generally inversely correlated with testosterone (which correlates with social status). However, the singular exception was for alpha males, or those are the absolute top.

In other words, the baboons with the lowest stress levels were those who were dominant but not at the absolute top of the social hierarchy.

These findings held up regardless of the social stability of the various baboon troops. Moreover, individual baboons exhibited this pattern throughout the various stages of their lives. That is, when they were beta males (presumably when they're still young), their stress level decreased as they climbed the social hierarchy. However, once they became alpha males, their stress shot up.

Ars technical speculated that the alpha's high stress could be related to their frequent aggressive encounters with other baboons (some of them likely challengers for their thrones) and plentiful time spent mating.

But is stress such a bad thing if it means alpha baboons can have access to all the food and females they want? Isn't it advantageous in terms of passing on their genes?

Not entirely.

Animals with persistently high levels of glucocorticoid wear out their reproductive and immune systems, among other adverse health effects, according to LA Times.