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Scientists Discover a New Understanding of Why Female Primates Outlive Males

Are females the safer sex? Yes, according to researchers studying aging in an endangered lemur in Madagascar known as the Milne-Edwards’ sifaka.
After observing these animals for more than two decades in the wild in Madagascar, co-author Patricia Wright, Director at the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, a Professor of Biological Anthropology at Stony Brook University and Executive Director of Centre ValBio, had a hunch that females were living longer than their male counterparts. The findings, "Risky business: Sex differences in mortality and dispersal in a polygynous, monomorphic lemur," have been published online in the February 28 issue of Behavioral Ecology.

Females tend to outlive males in many animals, including humans. But in the Milne-Edwards’ sifaka — a rainforest-dweller with orange-red eyes, a black face and woolly dark brown fur —the sexes do not seem to differ in any of the ways thought to give females a survival advantage in other animals.

Sex differences in aggression, hormones, or appearance drive males of many species to an earlier grave. But in the Milne-Edwards’ sifaka, males and females have similar levels of testosterone, and are equally likely to pick fights.

Both sexes stray from the safety of their social groups, explained lead author Stacey Tecot of the University of Arizona. They also grow at similar rates and reach roughly the same size, have similar coloration, and are equally likely to be spotted by predators.

For the study, Tecot, Wright and colleagues analyzed detailed records of births, deaths, and dispersal behavior for more than 70 individual lemurs living in Ranomafana National Park in southeastern Madagascar — a data set spanning 23 years from 1986 to 2009. According to the data, most males died by their late teens. But females lived, on average, into their early 30s. What could explain the gender gap? By taking a closer look at dispersal behavior across the lifespan, the researchers think they have a clue. In Milne-Edwards’ sifaka society, both sexes are known to leave the groups where they were born in search of a new group to call their own — sometimes dispersing repeatedly throughout their lives.

The data suggest that on average, males and females disperse equally frequently, and wander just as far. But when the researchers broke down dispersal across their lifespan, from infancy to old age, they found that males and females differed in their timing. The differences do not start to emerge until later in life. Females generally stopped dispersing after a certain age, typically when they reached 11 years old. But males switched groups three times in an average lifespan. “Female lemurs are leaders,” said Dr. Wright. “It’s exciting to know that even when females lead they are still living longer.”

Researchers don’t know why females eventually settle down, whereas males continue to strike off on their own. But dispersing at older ages could carry greater costs, especially if older animals are not as agile or quick to heal from injury.

“When you’re a social animal and you go off on your own into unfamiliar territory, finding food can be more of a challenge. Plus you don’t have the extra protection of other group members who can help look out for predators. Even when you find a new group to join, you may have to fight your way in and there’s a chance of getting injured in a fight,” said co-author Jennifer Verdolin of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.

The study does not help explain why women tend to outlive men in humans, the authors caution. But it does suggest that fine-scale studies of risk-taking behavior at different ages could reveal age-specific mortality risk factors that researchers have not considered.

This research is funded by the National Science Foundation. Brian Gerber of Colorado State University and Stephen King of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst were also authors of this study.

About Patricia Wright
Patricia Wright, PhD, the Director at the Institute for the Conservation of Tropical Environments, a Professor of Biological Anthropology at Stony Brook University and Executive Director of Centre ValBio, made history in 1986 when she discovered the golden bamboo lemur, a species that was then unknown to science and that helped to catalyze the formation of Madagascar’s park systems.
A short time later, when she learned that timber exploiters were logging its rain forest habitat, she spent months trekking to delimit park boundaries with the forestry service and securing funding to develop Ranomafana National Park (RNP), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses the home of 12 lemur species, some of which are listed among the world’s most endangered animals.

Wright has become internationally known as a leading expert on lemurs and landscape conservation in Madagascar. Understanding that continued community involvement was crucial to her conservation efforts, Wright oversaw the development of a research station, Centre ValBio, at the forest’s edge of Madagascar in 2003. Centre ValBio has become an annual destination for hundreds of international researchers as well as a training center for future scientists and local community members. The station currently supports a staff of 70 Malagasy people and many have been trained on site as research technicians to support the work of visiting scientists. In July 2012, Centre ValBio inaugurated a five-level building with modern laboratories, dorms and high-speed Internet, allowing sophisticated research next to the rainforest.

Raised in Lyndonville, New York, Wright received her baccalaureate degree from Hood College and her doctorate from City University of New York.

Office of Media Relations | Newswise
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