The relationship between socio-sexual behavior and salivary cortisol in bonobos: tests of the tension regulation hypothesis



Bonobos are known for their pacifistic behavior and their large repertoire of behaviors that are thought to serve conflict resolution. One is an unusual form of ventro-ventral mounting that facilitates genital contacts (GC). Various hypotheses have been proposed to explain its function. In this study we tested predictions of the tension regulation hypothesis using salivary cortisol as a marker for social stress. The results indicate a temporal relationship between GC and cortisol levels. Compared with baseline data and matched samples of unrestricted food access, rates of GC increased when access to food sources was restricted. Cortisol levels were highest when access to food was constrained. However, because the behavioral and hormonal responses occurred when viewing the stimulus at a distance and preceded the physical presence of the stimulus, we conclude that the anticipation of a competitive situation was sufficient to induce social stress. Contrary to our prediction, targets of aggression did not have higher rates of GC nor did they solicit GC more often than others. Furthermore, higher GC rates did not correlate with a more pronounced decrease in cortisol levels. Not all results obtained in this study supported the predictions concerning the regulatory function of GC on social tension and further research is needed to explore this question. However, the results indicate that the anticipation of competition may be sufficient to induce a costly physiological response, and that high levels of resource competition may have lasting effects on physical stress and stress management. Am. J. Primatol. 71:223–232, 2009. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.