Female rule in lemurs is ancestral and hormonally mediated.
Female social dominance (FSD) over males is unusual in mammals, yet characterizes most Malagasy lemurs, which represent almost 30% of all primates. Despite its prevalence in this suborder, both the evolutionary trajectory and proximate mechanism of FSD remain unclear. Potentially associated with FSD is a suite of behavioural, physiological and morphological traits in females that implicates (as a putative mechanism) 'masculinization' via androgen exposure; however, relative to conspecific males, female lemurs curiously show little evidence of raised androgen concentrations. By observing mixed-sex pairs of related Eulemur species, we identified two key study groups--one comprised of species expressing FSD and increased female scent marking, the other comprised of species (from a recently evolved clade) showing equal status between the sexes and the more traditional pattern of sexually dimorphic behaviour. Comparing females from these two groups, we show that FSD is associated with more masculine androgen profiles. Based on the widespread prevalence of male-like features in female lemurs and a current phylogeny, we suggest that relaxation of hormonally mediated FSD emerged only recently and that female masculinization may be the ancestral lemur condition, an idea that could revolutionize our understanding of the ancient socioecology and evolution of primate social systems.
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