In publica commoda

Press release: A faithful friend is the medicine of life

Nr. 301/2014 - 08.12.2014

Göttingen scientists show social buffering effect on stress in wild primate males

(pug) Humans that form strong social bonds or friendships and feel less lonely are less likely to suffer from infections, heart diseases and chronically elevated stress levels. A recent study by researchers from the University of Göttingen and the German Primate Center indicates that these effects are independent from our complex sociality and the many challenges posed by modern life, as a strikingly similar pattern was found in wild Barbary macaque males living in their natural habitat in the Middle Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Stress levels in the life of male Barbary macaques increase when individuals suffer higher rates of aggression from group mates or when ambient temperatures drop too low. However, the stronger bonded a male, the smaller the increase in physiological stress caused by increasing stressor intensity. The results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).

The buffering effect of strong social ties had so far been observed mainly among pair bonded individuals or between mothers and offspring. “Our results of a stress-attenuating effect of close bonds in a natural setting and among males crucially broaden the generality of the social buffering concept,” says behavioral ecologist Prof. Dr. Julia Ostner. “Especially since the stressors we measured – increased aggression and low temperatures – should be considered everyday problems rather than real catastrophes.” Similar to most mammalian males, Barbary macaque males compete fiercely for access to females. Nevertheless, the scientists around Prof. Ostner and Dr. Oliver Schülke observed strong and stable social bonds among specific male-male dyads that resemble human friendships.

“We had already established that close social partners preferentially support each other in aggressive conflicts,” explains Dr. Schülke. “We didn’t expect these relationships to also have physiological effects and thus potential consequences for an individual’s health.” The overall rate of affiliation a male engaged in did not show a physiological effect. Thus, the correlation seems to exist between stress and the quality, not the quantity, of social relationships. Apparently, the importance of keeping a few close friends has deep evolutionary rules.

Original publication: Christopher Young et al. Response to social and environmental stress are attenuated by strong male bonds in wild macaques. PNAS,

Prof. Dr. Julia Ostner
University of Göttingen
Faculty of Biology and Psychology
Courant Research Centre „Evolution of Social Behaviour“
Kellnerweg 6, 37077 Göttingen, Germany
Phone +49 551 39-9636