Protozoan parasites in group-living primates: testing the biological island hypothesis


Correspondence to: Colin A. Chapman, Department of Anthropology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 2T7.


A series of articles by W.J. Freeland published in the 1970s proposed that social organization and behavioral processes were heavily influenced by parasitic infections, which led to a number of intriguing hypotheses concerning how natural selection might act on social factors because of the benefits of avoiding parasite infections. For example, Freeland [1979] showed that all individuals within a given group harbored identical gastrointestinal protozoan faunas, which led him to postulate that social groups were akin to “biological islands” and suggest how this isolation could select specific types of ranging and dispersal patterns. Here, we reexamine the biological island hypothesis by quantifying the protozoan faunas of the same primate species examined by Freeland in the same location; our results do not support this hypothesis. In contrast, we quantified two general changes in protozoan parasite community of primates in the study area of Kibale National Park, Uganda, over the nearly 35 years between sample collections: (1) the colobines found free of parasites in the early 1970s are now infected with numerous intestinal protozoan parasites and (2) groups are no longer biological islands in terms of their protozoan parasites. Whatever the ultimate explanation for these changes, our findings have implications for studies proposing selective forces shaping primate behavior and social organization. Am. J. Primatol. 74:510–517, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.