Reproductive strategies have evolved to maximize individual reproductive success. These strategies can be divided into those that deal with offspring production and care (parental investment) and those that maximize mating success (sexual selection). Because the reproductive physiology of male and female primates differs, males and females differ with regard to parental investment and sexual selection strategies. Female strategies focus on obtaining the food necessary to sustain a pregnancy and choosing the best male(s) to father offspring. Male strategies focus on gaining access to receptive females.
Biologically speaking, parental investment is any time or energy a parent devotes to the current offspring that enhances its survival (and eventual reproductive success) at the expense of the parent’s ability to invest in the next offspring (Trivers 1972). Female primates invest more heavily in offspring than males. Even before conception, females produce energy-containing eggs, and they will be responsible for sustaining a fertilized egg until it implants in the uterus. After that, they invest in pregnancy and lactation (Figure 6.16). Because all of this investment requires a lot of energy, female primates can only produce one offspring (or litter) at a time. A species’ interbirth interval, or the typical length of time between one birth and the next, is determined by the length of time necessary to maximize each offspring’s survival without jeopardizing the female’s ability to produce the greatest number of offspring possible. If a female invests too little (i.e., weans an offspring too early), she may give birth to many offspring, but very few (if any) of them will survive. If she invests too much (i.e., nurses an offspring even after it could be weaned), she ensures the survival of that individual offspring but will not be able to produce very many during her lifetime. To maximize her reproductive success, a female must invest just long enough to ensure the greatest number of offspring survive to reproduce. We often think of maternal care as an innate (or natural), instinctive behavior. Yet this is not the case. The “Special Topic: Is Maternal Behavior Innate?” dispels the myth that maternal behavior is solely instinctual and explains how female primates learn to be good mothers.
Sexual selection, or selection for traits that maximize mating success, comes in two forms. Intrasexual selection is selection for traits that enhance the ability of members of one sex to compete amongst themselves (“intrasexual” = within one sex). Intersexual selection is selection for traits that enhance the ability of one sex to attract the other (“intersexual” = between the sexes).
Intrasexual selection most often operates on males. In the wild, adult females are either pregnant or lactating for most of their adult lives. So, in a given population, there are usually more males available and willing to mate than there are females. The result? Females are a scarce resource over which males compete. Intrasexual selection favors traits that help a male win fights with other males. In primates, these traits include large body size (Figure 6.17a) and large canines (Figure 6.17b). Because females don’t possess these same traits, males and females of some species look different; that is, they are sexually dimorphic (Figure 6.17a).
Intersexual selection also tends to operate on males, selecting traits that make a male more attractive to females. Females, in turn, choose among potential fathers. Because female primates invest more in offspring production and care than males (see the “Parental Investment” section, above), it is more costly for them if the offspring dies before maturity or reaches maturity but does not reproduce. Thus, it benefits a female primate to be choosy and try to pick the healthiest male as a mate. Males must display traits that tell a female why she should choose him, and not another male, as her mate.
What traits are female primates looking for? In humans, women may look for a mate who can provide important resources, such as food, paternal care, or protection. This is rare in other primates, though, since most females do not need males to provide resources. More commonly, female primates obtain genetic benefits for their offspring from choosing one male over another. Often the specific criteria by which females select mates is unknown. However, if a female chooses a healthy (as indicated by traits like a plush coat, bright coloration, or large body size) or older male, she may obtain genes for her offspring that code for health or long life. If a male’s rank is determined by competitive ability that has a genetic component, females who choose males who win fights may acquire these genes (and qualities) for their offspring. Females in some species appear to prefer new immigrants, sometimes even “sneaking” copulations with males who are not established members of their groups. Such a preference may provide their offspring with novel genes and increase genetic variation (for more about the importance of genetic variation, see Chapter 4). Female choice is often more subtle than male-male competition, so it can be more difficult to study. However, as more research is conducted, we continue to improve our understanding of the ways that female primates exert their choice.
Zoos almost always have nurseries where infants are cared for by zookeepers if their mothers will not care for them (Figure 6.18). These exhibits are among the most popular because the babies are so cute and so much fun to watch. And the caretaking positions in zoo nurseries are often among the most coveted by zoo personnel for the same reasons. But if maternal behavior is instinctive, why do zoo nurseries even exist? The answer is that in many species, including primates, maternal behavior is not purely instinctual; it is dependent on social learning (behavior learned by observing and imitating others), as well.
Captive female primates, including gorillas and chimpanzees, who have not had the opportunity to observe their mother or other females care for infants do not know how to care for their own offspring. Although it is preferred that the primate mother care for her own infant, there are cases when she will not and humans must step in to ensure the offspring survives. When hand-rearing by humans is necessary, the infant is returned to the group as soon as possible in the hopes that it will learn species-typical behavior from its mother and other conspecifics. Observations such as these indicate that maternal behavior is learned, not innate, and that maternal care is critically important to the social and psychological development of young primates.