The Unsuspecting Alpha Male

The Living Links Center is home to two groups (the Nuts and the Bolts) of Capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). The last few weeks have been spent finalizing preparations for the transfer of three of our monkeys to a wildlife rescue and retirement facility in Texas. One of the individuals, Bravo, is the current alpha male of the Bolts group, though our observations of his behavior have led us to conclude that Bravo is a rather relaxed alpha. It is quite possible that he never wanted the role nor understood that he was in fact the alpha of the group. This likely has to do with how he came into the position in the first place.

In the wild, capuchin males will leave their natal group and find another group to take over and become the alpha. This involves physically ousting the current alpha male and gaining support of the resident females. In Bravo’s case, we transferred the previous alpha male to another facility and Bravo, being the second in line and the largest male in the group, was the obvious choice for alpha. In addition, he already had support from the main females in the group, Star, Sammie and Bias. In the picture below Bravo is the large male in the center who is being groomed by Sammie. Star, the alpha female, is on the left and Snarf is on the right.

In the months following his unanticipated promotion to alpha male, Bravo enjoyed the benefits of his new position, namely eating first and mating with the females, but declined to perform some primary alpha duties, such as intervening during group conflicts. This has allowed the alpha female, Star, to have an abnormal authority over the group. Waiting in the wings has been our beta male, Mason. Mason often defends the lowest ranking individuals of the group and harasses the offspring of the highest-ranking females. As Bravo’s transfer date draws closer, we are uncertain whether Mason will realize that he is now eligible for the alpha position, particularly given our previous experience with Bravo. However, there is one major difference between Bravo and Mason’s accession, namely that Mason does not have the female support that Bravo had. This may require Mason to take an active role in acquiring the alpha position. During the coming weeks we will be closely monitoring the group to see how this succession transpires and whether Mason will pursue support from the females. Likewise, we will observe how the females respond to Bravo’s absence and Mason’s expanding authority.

— Jen Pokorny