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Infant handling enhances social bonds in free-ranging rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta)

In: Behaviour
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  • 1 aGraduate Program in Evolution, Ecology and Behavior, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA
  • | 2 bDepartment of Anthropology, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY, USA
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Throughout the primate order, individuals are highly motivated to handle infants that are not their own. Given the differing and often conflicting interests of the various participants in handling interactions (handler, infant, and mother), most functional hypotheses are specific to particular handling roles. Here we explore one hypothesis that may apply to all participants, but that has received relatively little attention: that handling may facilitate the formation and maintenance of social bonds. Using free-ranging rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) on Cayo Santiago, we examine the relationship between infant handling in the early weeks and the strength and diversity of infant social bonds months later, when infant relationships were more independent from those of their mothers. Our results largely confirm the influence of several social characteristics (kinship, rank, sex, and age) in governing handling interactions. They also provide the first evidence that early handling is associated with later social bonds that are stronger than expected based on these social characteristics. However, the enhancement of bonds is largely confined to related handlers; frequent unrelated handlers did not generally go on to form strong bonds with infants. This suggests that kinship may be a sort of prerequisite to the enhancement of social bonds via handling. Given the adaptive benefits of strong social bonds among adult primates, future research should investigate whether early infant handling may have longer term fitness effects.

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