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Dominance, Status Signals and Coloration in Male Mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx)


Joanna M. Setchell, Department of Biological Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3DZ, UK. E-mail:


Where individuals contest access to a resource, escalated physical fighting presents a risk to all involved. The requirement for mechanisms of conflict management has led to the evolution of a variety of decision rules and signals that act to reduce the frequency of aggression during competitive encounters. We examined strategies of conflict management in male mandrills (Mandrillus sphinx) living in two semi-free-ranging groups in Gabon. Adult male mandrills are large (31 kg), with long canines, making the costs of conflict potentially very high. We found that males formed dominance hierarchies, but that male–male relationships were characterized by avoidance, appeasement and ignoring. Fights were rare, but could result in death. Examination of the relationship between dominance and signaling showed that males use facial and gestural signals to communicate dominance and subordinance, avoiding escalated conflict. Male mandrills also possess rank-dependent red coloration on the face, rump and genitalia, and we examined the hypothesis that this coloration acts as a ‘badge of status’, communicating male fighting ability to other males. If this is the case, then similarity in color should lead to higher dyadic rates of aggression, while males that differ markedly should resolve encounters quickly, with the paler individual retreating. Indeed, appeasement (the ‘grin’ display), threats, fights and tense ‘stand-off’ encounters were significantly more frequent between similarly colored males, while clear submission was more frequent where color differences were large. We conclude that male mandrills employ both formal behavioral indicators of dominance and of subordination, and may also use relative brightness of red coloration to facilitate the assessment of individual differences in fighting ability, thereby regulating the degree of costly, escalated conflict between well-armed males.