Social status and cortisol levels in singing rock hyraxes

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Abstract

Many mammals use acoustic signals to communicate with conspecifics. Rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis) are social mammals whose vocal communication is usually restricted to quiet sounds used between nearby individuals. Loud repetitive warning trills are an exception. In our study site, a third of the adult male hyraxes also produces a rich, complex and loud vocalization we term 'singing'. In this study, we examine whether singers, which are more conspicuous by the act of singing, have higher cortisol (i.e. basal stress; C) levels than non-singers, and whether there is an association between social status and stress hormones in male hyraxes. We show that 'singing' males are different from the general adult male population in that their C levels are higher than those of silent males. Only in singers, C levels are associated with social rank, with dominants showing the highest levels. Singers are also on average older and more dominant than most other sexually mature non-singing males. Further, they copulate more than non-singers, suggesting that singing males may have higher reproductive success. Our results support the ‘stress of domination’ hypothesis and indicate that in the rock hyrax singing may reflect high competitive ability, designating singers as a distinct class of males, unique in their personal attributes and behavior.

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