What is Female Dominance?

Kappeler (1993a) defined female dominance as the ability for all females to evoke submissive behavior from all males in within dyadic agonistic interactions. Kappeler also suggested this is a unique characteristic among mammals (Kappeler, 1993a).


This definition of “true female dominance” can only be applied to some Malagasy lemurs (Pereira et al. 1990). Although several species of mammals have been described as female dominant such as bonobos or spotted hyenas they do not exhibit true female dominance. The spotted hyena exhibits female agonistic wins during feeding competition and are giving feed priority (Kruuk, 1972), however females do not consistently dominate males in all contexts (Frank et al. 1989). An example of a situation where a female may not dominate is juvenile males of higher-ranking mothers against lower ranking adult females (Smale et al., 1993).

Spotted-hyaena.jpgMalagasy primates with female dominance

  • Blue eyed black lemur (Digby and Kahlenberg, 2002)
  • Alaotran gentle lemur (Waeber and Hemelrijk, 2003)
  • Eastern Lesser bamboo lemur (Grassi, 2001)
  • Indri (Pollock, 1979)
  • Ring-tailed lemur (Jolly, 1966)
  • Milne-Edwards’ sifaka (Pochron et al. 2003)
  • Verreaux’s sifaka (Richard, 1978)
  • Mouse lemur (Radespiel and Zimmermann, 2001)
  • Ruffed lemur (Kaufman, 1991)

Hypothesis behind female dominance

  1. Energy conservation
    1. High reproductive energetic demands in the harsh seasonal environment of Madagascar and high maternal investment. Female dominance would allow for feeding priority over males to fulfill these demands (Jolly, 1984)
  2. Sleeping site (This is specific nocturnal solitary foragers ie Mouse Lemur)
    1. Female dominance differences in nocturnal solitary foragers due to differing sleeping site ecology and sleeping patterns (Eichmueller et al., 2013).
  3. Ancestral lemur condition
    1. Phylogenetic constraints explaining the distribution of female dominance throughout lemurs (Hrdy, 1981; Jolly, 1984).

References/Read more

Digby, L.J. & Kahlenberg, S.M. (2002) Female dominance in blue-eyed black lemurs (Eulemur macaco flavifrons). Primates 43: 191-199.

Eichmueller et al. (2013). The lack of female dominance in golden-brown mouse lemurs suggests alternative routes in lemur social evolution. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 150pp. 158–164

Frank, L.G.; Glickman, S.E. & Zabel, C.J. (1989) Ontogeny of female dominance in the spotted hyaena: Perspectives from nature and captivity. Symposia of the Zoological Society of London 61: 127-146.

Grassi, C. (2001) The behavioral ecology of Hapalemur griseus griseus: The influences of microhabitat and population density on this small-bodied prosimian folivore. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, Austin.

  • Hrdy, S.B. (1981) The woman that never evolvedHarvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Jolly, A. (1966) Lemur Behavior: A Madagascar Field Study. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

  • A. (1984), The puzzle of female feeding priority. M.F. Small (Ed.), Female primates: Studies by woman primatologists, Alan R. Liss, Inc, New York, NY pp. 197–215

Kappeler, P.M. (1993a) Female dominance in primates and other mammals. In: Perspectives in Ethology, Volume 10: Behavior and Evolution. Bateson, P.P.G.; Klopfer, P.H. & Thompson, N.S. (eds.), Plenum Press, New York, pp. 143-157.

Kaufman, R. (1991) Female dominance in semifree-ranging black-and-white ruffed lemurs, Varecia variegata variegata. Folia Primatologica 57: 39-41.

Kruuk, H. (1972) The Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behavior. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Pereira, M.E.; Kaufman, R.; Kappeler, P.M. & Overdorff, D.J. (1990) Female dominance does not characterize all of the Lemuridae. Folia Primatologica 55: 96-103.

Pochron, S.T.; Fitzgerald, J.; Gilbert, C.C.; Lawrence, D.; Grgas, M.; Rakotonirina, G.; Ratsimbazafy, R.; Rakotosoa, R. & Wright, P.C. (2003) Patterns of female dominance in Propithecus diadema edwardsi of Ranomafana national park, Madagascar. American Journal of Primatology 61: 173-185.

Pollock, J.J. (1979) Female dominance in Indri indri. Folia Primatologica 31: 143-164.

Radespiel, U. & Zimmermann, E. (2001) Female dominance in captive gray mouse lemurs (Microcebus murinus). American Journal of Primatology 54: 181-192.

Richard, A.F. (1978) Behavioral Variation: Case Study of a Malagasy Lemur. Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg.

Smale, L.; Frank, L.G. & Holekamp, K.E. (1993) Ontogeny of dominance in free-living spotted hyaenas: Juvenile rank relations with adult females and immigrant males. Animal Behaviour 46: 467-477.

Waeber, P.O. & Hemelrijk, C.K. (2003) Female dominance and social structure in Alaotran gentle lemurs. Behaviour 140: 1235-1246.






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