Zoologger: Female monkeys indulge in synchronised sex

New Scientist
Life

 

Zoologger is our weekly column highlighting extraordinary animals – and occasionally other organisms – from around the world

13:20 20 October 2011 by Michael Marshall
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Species: Macaca assamensis
Habitat: dense forests of south-east Asia, doing what their neighbours do

Supposedly, if women live together their hormonal cycles start to synchronise, thanks to a pheromone. If that were true it would mean that they all have their period simultaneously. Just think about it.

This “menstrual synchrony” argument was first reported in 1971 by psychologist Martha McClintock, who noticed signs of it in her own college dorm. But it may not really exist. Studies have had mixed results, often reporting no synchrony at all.

Assamese macaques, however, have evolved an unmistakable kind of synchrony: they all have sex at the same time.

Monkey business

Assamese macaques live in troupes of a few dozen, including about a dozen adults of each sex, plus offspring. Although there are strong social bonds within the troupes, they are dominated by the males, who compete vigorously to mate with the females. The mating season runs from October to January, and the males become increasingly aggressive as it goes on.

The males do show some solidarity. If a female attacks a male, other males will rally to his defence. But it is the females who form close friendships with each other, while males are only loosely allied with their fellows.

The females also have ways of resisting the males’ control of the troupes, says Ines Fürtbauer of the University of Göttingen in Germany. For one thing, like human females, they do not show external signs of fertility, so males have no way of knowing whether the female they are mating with is actually able to conceive. The females mate throughout their cycles, further confusing the issue.

As a result, the dominant males can’t monopolise fertile females. Instead each female mostly mates with her preferred male, regardless of how high-ranking he is – although she will mate with every male at some point.

This suggests that the females are trying to keep all the males friendly. Not knowing who fathered which baby, the males ought to refrain from killing young. In fact, Fürtbauer says, the young spend most of their time being cared for by the males.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.