Open Access Research article

Sexual signalling in female crested macaques and the evolution of primate fertility signals

James P Higham12*, Michael Heistermann3, Carina Saggau1, Muhammad Agil4, Dyah Perwitasari-Farajallah56 and Antje Engelhardt167

Author Affiliations

1 Jr Research Group on Sexual Selection, Reproductive Biology Unit, German Primate Centre, Kellnerweg 4, Göttingen, 37077, Germany

2 Department of Anthropology, New York University, 25 Waverly Place, New York, NY, 10003, USA

3 Reproductive Biology Unit, German Primate Centre, Kellnerweg 4, Göttingen, 37077, Germany

4 Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Bogor Agricultural University, Bogor, Indonesia

5 Primate Research Center, Bogor Agricultural University, Bogor, Indonesia

6 Faculty of Mathematics & Natural Sciences, Bogor Agricultural University, Bogor, Indonesia

7 Courant Research Centre “Evolution of Social Behaviour”, Kellnerweg 6, Göttingen, 37077, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:89  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-89

Published: 18 June 2012



Female signals of fertility have evolved in diverse taxa. Among the most interesting study systems are those of multimale multifemale group-living primates, where females signal fertility to males through multiple signals, and in which there is substantial inter-specific variation in the composition and reliability of such signals. Among the macaques, some species display reliable behavioural and/or anogenital signals while others do not. One cause of this variation may be differences in male competitive regimes: some species show marked sexual dimorphism and reproductive skew, with males fighting for dominance, while others show low dimorphism and skew, with males queuing for dominance. As such, there is variation in the extent to which rank is a reliable proxy for male competitiveness, which may affect the extent to which it is in females’ interest to signal ovulation reliably. However, data on ovulatory signals are absent from species at one end of the macaque continuum, where selection has led to high sexual dimorphism and male reproductive skew. Here we present data from 31 cycles of 19 wild female crested macaques, a highly sexually dimorphic species with strong mating skew. We collected measures of ovarian hormone data from faeces, sexual swelling size from digital images, and male and female behaviour.


We show that both sexual swelling size and female proceptivity are graded-signals, but relatively reliable indicators of ovulation, with swelling size largest and female proceptive behaviours most frequent around ovulation. Sexual swelling size was also larger in conceptive cycles. Male mating behaviour was well timed to female ovulation, suggesting that males had accurate information about this.


Though probabilistic, crested macaque ovulatory signals are relatively reliable. We argue that in species where males fight over dominance, male dominance rank is surrogate for competitiveness. Under these circumstances it is in the interest of females to increase paternity concentration and assurance in dominants beyond levels seen in species where such competition is less marked. As such, we suggest that it may in part be variation in male competitive regimes that leads to the evolution of fertility signalling systems of different reliability.

Fertility signals; Sexual selection; Sexual swellings; Primate