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Stressed out monkeys struggle in the mating game

People’s sex life can be the first casualty when stress levels rocket. Now new research suggests that our primate cousins may experience similar effects.

Posted: 19 June 2013

image for news story Stressed out monkeys struggle in the mating game
Adult male rhesus monkeys were found to mate less often when they were stressed.

High stress levels are bad for you in many ways, but as any agony aunt knows, people’s sex life can be the first casualty when stress levels rocket. Now new research suggests that our primate cousins may experience similar effects… stressed out monkeys have very little sex, while their more relaxed associates are much more successful with the opposite sex.

Researchers from the University of Roehampton studied a population of rhesus monkeys living on Cayo Santiago, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. They watched adult males to measure their sexual behaviour, and collected these animals’ droppings to analyse them back in the lab for levels of stress hormones.

They found a four-fold difference among males in their stress levels but an even bigger variation in terms of sexual activity…some males were mating as frequently as once an hour, while others weren’t even managing one mating a day. Strikingly, it was the monkeys with high stress levels that were struggling with the females, and the really relaxed males that were getting the most action.

Dr McFarland, who led the study, said “Our results suggest that for these animals, being stressed can inhibit sexual activity. Another interpretation of our results is that engaging in sex reduces stress levels…males with high stress levels may therefore be trapped in a vicious circle where their high stress levels negatively affect their sexual performance and their lack of performance further increases their stress levels”.

Study co-author, Dr Stuart Semple added “These results are particularly valuable as they come from a free-ranging population of monkeys. Studying stress levels among animals in these natural settings can really help us to understand how stress impacts on different aspects of our own lives.”

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