Theoretical models about female relationships within primate social groups hypothesise that food abundance and distribution are important factors determining the variation of patterns observed among species and populations. Despite some common premises, models formulated by van Schaik (1989) and Sterck et al. (1997) and by Isbell (1991) differ with respect to the importance of predation risk, the co-variation of contest and scramble competition and causes of female dispersal. In this study, data from a population of Cebus apella nigritus from Brazilian Atlantic Forest are analysed using predictions from these models. Competition among females, both within and between groups, is strong and related to food abundance and distribution. Females can transfer between groups, as well as males. Female dispersal is related to a significant reduction in per capita energy intake by group foragers during fruit scarcity periods. The data from this study are not conclusive about the importance of predation in causing variation of female relationships but favour the assumption from van Schaik and Sterck et al. that contest and scramble competition within and between groups can vary independently; and also favour the formulation from Isbell & Van Vuren (1996) on female dispersal. The exact pattern of female social relationships is not sufficiently explained by ecological causes alone. Social benefits provided by the dominant male also seem to be important.