July 15, 2011 -- Sex, power, respect and the finest food that a head honcho can buy. From the outside looking, it seems that the man in charge has it pretty darn comfy.
But a study of yellow baboons in the wild published today in the journal Science found that the alpha male, or "boss" of the group, had higher levels of stress than the males below him, the beta males.
"That was surprising, because in baboon society, being the boss is great. There are lots of good advantages -- access to food and to mates," said Laurence Gesquiere, a research associate in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.
Gesquiere and colleagues studied the levels of sex hormones and stress hormones in the fecal matter of yellow baboons in Kenya during a nine-year period. While the beta males had levels of sex hormones similar to the alphas, their stress hormones were noticeably lower than the alphas, the study found.
Gesquiere and her team uncovered reasons for the alpha male's higher stress levels. Facing challenges from others and initiating some physical altercations to re-establish their position in the group, "they had a higher rate of fighting," she said, "and spent more time guarding the [fertile] female, following her around and pushing away males trying to be with her."
She said that on average, a baboon remained in the alpha position for eight months but constantly faced challenges from others.
All this activity meant the alpha baboon did not focus much on eating and nutrition, which led to decreased energy. According to their study, being the beta was a plus.
"They do get a little bit less mating," she said, "[but] they are not getting the bad consequences."
Emily DuVal, a professor of ecology and evolution at Florida State University, said the differences between the alpha and beta males stood out.
"I find it especially interesting that the beta males are apparently buffered from factors causing increased" stress levels, she told The Associated Press. "This may be because betas receive less aggression from higher-ranking males than do low-ranked individuals."
Gesquiere said that although baboon society was very different from human society in terms of behavior, the two are in some sense comparable.
"Baboon society is not perfect," she said. "They live in those highly complex societies. They can relate to humans. They have very complex relationships and friendships."
But she cautioned against drawing strong parallels between the two.
"The study shows in a society like the baboon's, high status comes with high costs, and high benefits that can be associated with levels of stress," she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.