How Primates Deal With Stress: Behavior, Body, and Genes

Jenn Hoskins
17th February, 2024

How Primates Deal With Stress: Behavior, Body, and Genes

Image Source: Natural Science News, 2024

If you've ever observed the animal kingdom up close or even watched a nature documentary, you know that life can be pretty stressful for our furry and feathered friends. Whether it's dodging predators, vying for scarce resources, or dealing with social drama within their groups, animals are constantly under pressure. But just like humans, animals are equipped with their own ways of dealing with life's curveballs—an innate ability known as 'coping.' How they cope matters a lot, not only for their immediate survival but also for their overall well-being and chances to pass on their genes. Interestingly, not all animals handle stress in the same way, and these differences can be significant. Picture two different macaques faced with an invader in their territory; one might confront the threat head-on with teeth bared, while another might hang back and try to defuse the tension. Such variety in coping styles sparks curiosity about what's going on beneath the surface. What makes one animal react with aggression and another with patience or avoidance? A team of researchers at Utrecht University were on the case, intrigued by how behavioral, physiological, and even genetic factors might intertwine to shape the ways long-tailed macaques manage the rough patches in their lives. For the macaques, which are pretty sociable creatures, stress can come from all angles: getting picked on by higher-ranking monkeys, competing for a mate, or simply being perturbed by humans. To get to the heart of their coping mechanisms, the researchers observed a group of them and categorized their behaviors into styles. Some macaques consistently took the high road, preferring nonaggressive ways of dealing with drama, while others wouldn't think twice about a little scuffle if it meant solving their problems. The plot thickens with emotions. Just like us, animals experience emotional arousal when stressed. If you're panicking before a public speech, your heart rate goes up; in macaques, this might not be as obvious to spot. Scientifically speaking, a simple, yet clever, way to measure this arousal is by tracking facial temperature using infrared thermography—think of it as a highly sophisticated thermal camera. When a macaque is less emotionally aroused or more 'chill,' its face remains cooler. And yes, the aggressive copers, those ready to throw a punch, they kept their cool—literally—with lower average facial temperatures. Now, let's talk about personality. If you think that's exclusively human territory, think again. Animals, including macaques, have distinct personalities that range from bold to shy, easygoing to uptight. The researchers gauged these traits in the macaques to see how they aligned with their coping styles. There were clear connections; some personalities just seemed to go hand in hand with certain ways of handling stress. But wait, it gets even more interesting. The study ventured into the realm of genetics, examining a particular gene called catechol-O-methyltransferase, or COMT for short. You may not have heard of it, but it's kind of a big deal in the world of stress research, having been tied to how humans regulate stress. Macaques happen to have a similar version of this gene, which can come in different forms, just like in humans. Picture it like a genetic toggle switch that might nudge an individual towards either confrontation or cooperation when tension rises. The scientists discovered that the macaques carrying a specific variant of the COMT gene tended to favor nonaggressive coping strategies. It's like they have a molecular cushion buffering them against lashing out impulsively. It's a fine example of how tiny tweaks in DNA can ripple out into an individual's behavior, potentially influencing their life experiences and social standing. All in all, this elegant dance of behaviors, emotions, personalities, and genes paints a complex picture of how animals cope with stress. For long-tailed macaques, it's not just about whether they choose fight or flight; it's about an intricate web of influences that nudge them in one direction or another. While aggression might seem like a straightforward response to stress, those who take a pacifist approach could be operating on a mix of a cooler emotional state and a genetic predisposition towards keeping the peace. Understanding these coping styles and their underlying mechanisms in animals isn't just a fascinating peek into their world; it has implications for conservation efforts, animal welfare, and even insights into our own human stress responses. It's a reminder that the wild world is more nuanced than a simple survival of the fittest narrative. It's clear that the animal kingdom's response to the hustle and bustle of daily life is as intricate and varied as our own. As we continue to learn about these coping strategies, we might find new ways to promote the well-being of animals both in the wild and in our care—maybe even gaining a little wisdom along the way about handling our own stress-filled lives. Keep an eye on these crafty macaques; they're definitely onto something.

GeneticsAnimal Science


Main Study

1) Behavioral, physiological, and genetic drivers of coping in a non-human primate.

Published 16th February, 2024

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