Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

True paternal care in a multi-male primate society


Although male parental care is rare among mammals1, adult males of many cercopithecine primate species provide care for infants and juveniles. This care is often in the form of grooming, carrying, support in agonistic interactions, and protection against infanticide2,3. For these behaviours to be interpreted as true parental care, males must selectively direct care towards their own offspring and this care must result in fitness benefits4. With the exception of males defending probable offspring from infanticide5, male primates living in multi-male, multi-female social groups have not been shown to selectively direct care towards their own offspring6,7. We determined paternity for 75 juveniles in a population of wild savannah baboons (Papio cynocephalus) and collected data on interventions in agonistic disputes by adult males on behalf of juveniles as a form of male care. Here we show that adult males differentiate their offspring from unrelated juveniles and selectively support their offspring in agonistic disputes. As support in agonistic disputes is likely to contribute to rank acquisition and protect juveniles from injury and stress2,3,5, this can be considered true parental care.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: We counted all instances of help that each juvenile received from adult males.


  1. Woodroffe, R. & Vincent, A. Mother's little helpers: patterns of male care in mammals. Trends Ecol. Evol. 9, 294–297 (1994)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Smuts, B. B. & Gubernick, D. J. in Father–Child Relations (ed. Hewlett, B. S.) 1–30 (Aldine De Gruyter, New York, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  3. van Schaik, C. P. & Paul, A. Male care in primates: does it ever reflect paternity? Evol. Anthropol. 5, 152–156 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Trivers, R. L. in Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man 1871–1971 (ed. Campbell, B.) (Aldine, Chicago, 1972)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Borries, C., Launhardt, K., Epplen, C., Epplen, J. T. & Winkler, P. Males as infant protectors in Hanuman langurs (Presbytis entellus) living in multimale groups—defence pattern, paternity and sexual behaviour. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 46, 350–356 (1999)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Paul, A., Kuester, J. & Arnemann, J. The sociobiology of male–infant interactions in Barbary macaques. Macaca sylvanus. Anim. Behav. 51, 155–170 (1996)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Ménard, N. et al. Is male–infant caretaking related to paternity and/or mating activities in wild Barbary macaques (Macaca sylvanus)? C.R. Acad. Sci. III Vie 324, 601–610 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Altmann, J. et al. Behavior predicts genetic structure in a wild primate group. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 93, 5797–5801 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Sherman, P. W., Reeve, H. K. & Pfennig, D. W. in Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach (eds Krebs, J. R. & Davies, N. B.) 69–96 (Blackwell Scientific, Oxford, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  10. Hauber, M. E. & Sherman, P. W. Self-referent phenotype matching: theoretical considerations and empirical evidence. Trends Neurosci. 24, 609–616 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Singh, D. & Bronstad, P. Female body odour is a potential cue to ovulation. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 286, 797–801 (2001)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Wedekind, C., Seebeck, T., Bettens, F. & Paepke, A. J. MHC-dependent mate preferences in humans. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 260, 245–249 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Wedekind, C. & Furi, S. Body odour preferences in men and women: do they aim for specific MHC combinations or simply heterozygosity? Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 264, 1471–1479 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Ober, C. et al. HLA and mate choice in humans. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 61, 497–504 (1997)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Jacob, S., McClintock, M. K., Zelano, B. & Ober, C. Paternally inherited HLA alleles are associated with women's choice of male odours. Nature Genet. 30, 175–179 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Halpin, Z. T. in Kin Recognition (ed. Hepper, P. G.) 220–258 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1991)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  17. Parr, L. A. & de Waal, F. B. M. Visual kin recognition in chimpanzees. Nature 399, 647–648 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Widdig, A., Nürnberg, P., Krawczak, M. & Bercovitch, F. B. Paternal relatedness and age proximity regulate social relationships among adult female rhesus macaques. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 98, 13769–13773 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Smith, K., Alberts, S. C. & Altmann, J. Wild female baboons bias their social behaviour towards paternal half-sisters. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 270, 503–510 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Alberts, S. C. Paternal kin discrimination in wild baboons. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 266, 1501–1506 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Soltis, J., Thomsen, R., Matsubayashi, K. & Takenaka, O. Infanticide by resident males and female counter-strategies in wild Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata). Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 48, 195–202 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Silk, J. B. Kin selection in primate groups. Int. J. Primatol. 23, 849–875 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Palombit, R. A., Seyfarth, R. M. & Cheney, D. L. The adaptive value of ‘friendships’ to female baboons: experimental and observational evidence. Anim. Behav. 54, 599–614 (1997)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Smith, K. L. et al. Cross-species amplification, non-invasive genotyping, and non-mendelian inheritance of human STRPs in savannah baboons. Am. J. Primatol. 51, 219–227 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Morin, P. A., Chambers, K. E., Boesch, C. & Vigilant, L. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction analysis of DNA from noninvasive samples for accurate microsatellite genotyping of wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus). Mol. Ecol. 10, 1835–1844 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Taberlet, P. et al. Reliable genotyping of samples with very low DNA quantities using PCR. Nucleic Acids Res. 24, 3189–3194 (1996)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Alberts, S. C. & Altmann, J. Preparation and activation: determinants of age at reproductive maturity in male baboons. Behav. Ecol. Sociobiol. 36, 397–406 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Marshall, T. C., Slate, J., Kruuk, L. E. B. & Pemberton, J. M. Statistical confidence for likelihood-based paternity inference in natural populations. Mol. Ecol. 7, 639–655 (1998)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Shaikh, A. A., Celaya, C. L., Gomez, I. & Shaikh, S. A. Temporal relationship of hormonal peaks to ovulation and sex skin deturgescence in the baboon. Primates 23, 444–452 (1982)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Hausfater, G. Dominance and Reproduction in Baboons (Papio cynocephalus) (Basel, Karger, 1975)

    Google Scholar 

  31. Silk, J. B., Alberts, S. C. & Altmann, J. Patterns of coalition formation by adult female baboons in Amboseli, Kenya. Anim. Behav. (in the press)

Download references


We thank the Office of the President of the Republic of Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service for permission to work in Amboseli, and the Institute of Primate Research for local sponsorship. We also thank the Wardens and staff of Amboseli National Park, and the pastoralist communities of Amboseli and Longido for continuous cooperation and assistance. We acknowledge financial support from the National Science Foundation (to J.A., J.B.S. and S.C.A.), the Chicago Zoological Society (to J.A.), the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation and the National Geographic Society (J.B.S). We thank M. Lavine, of the Duke University Statistical Consulting Center, and R. Zimmerman for advice and assistance with statistical tests; R. S. Mututua, S. N. Sayialel and J. K. Warutere for data and sample collection. C. Packer and R. Palombit provided comments on the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Susan C. Alberts.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Buchan, J., Alberts, S., Silk, J. et al. True paternal care in a multi-male primate society. Nature 425, 179–181 (2003).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing