International Journal of Primatology

, Volume 35, Issue 3–4, pp 764–786 | Cite as

Mating Competition, Promiscuity, and Life History Traits as Predictors of Sexually Transmitted Disease Risk in Primates

  • Charles L. Nunn
  • Erik J. Scully
  • Nobuyuki Kutsukake
  • Julia Ostner
  • Oliver Schülke
  • Peter H. Thrall


Competition among males influences the distribution of copulations and should therefore influence the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). We developed a model to investigate STDs in the mating and social systems found in primates, and we tested predictions using comparative methods. In the model, groups were distributed on a square lattice in which males or females disperse and males undergo characteristic dominance trajectories at maturity (challenge vs. queuing). We investigated the impact of mating rate, mating skew, migration rate of males or females, and group size on disease spread and prevalence. The model generated several predictions: 1) STD prevalence is higher in females than males; 2) STD risk increases with copulation rate; 3) high skew is negatively associated with STD risk; 4) STD risk is higher for all individuals when females disperse and 5) when mortality rates are lower; and 6) reproductive skew and later age of male dominance (queuing) produce more strongly female-biased STD prevalence. In comparative tests, we quantified STD risk as prevalence and richness of sexually transmitted organisms at the host species level. We found positive associations between host longevity and higher STD richness, and only (nonsignificant) weak trends for females to have higher STD prevalence. Mating skew showed a weakly positive association with STD richness, contrary to predictions of our model but consistent with predictions from a previous model. In some tests, we also found that female dispersal resulted in greater STD infection risk. Collectively, these results demonstrate that mating competition and demography influence patterns of STD infection, with mortality rates having the strongest effects in comparative tests.


Comparative study Infectious disease Male mating competition Sexual selection Sexually transmitted disease 



We especially thank Randi Griffin for coding the model and providing extensive feedback on the design, implementation, and interpretation of the findings. We thank two reviewers and the editors of this special issue for their feedback. Joel Bray helped compile data used for the comparative tests and provided feedback on the text. For funding, N. Kutsukake thanks PRESTO (JST) and Kakenhi (25711025, MEXT), and E. J. Scully acknowledges support from an National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

Supplementary material

10764_2014_9781_MOESM1_ESM.pptx (223 kb)
Fig. S1 Effects of sex-biased dispersal and female group size (n f ) on (a) population prevalence and (b) sex differences in prevalence (calculated as female prevalence minus male prevalence). Filled circles indicate male dispersal. Open circles indicate female dispersal. (PPTX 223 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM2_ESM.pptx (225 kb)
Fig. S2 Effects of sex-biased dispersal and peak age of dominance (p) on (a) population prevalence and (b) sex differences in prevalence (calculated as female prevalence minus male prevalence). Filled circles indicate male dispersal. Open circles indicate female dispersal. (PPTX 225 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM3_ESM.pptx (214 kb)
Fig. S3 Effects of sex-biased dispersal and migration rate (m r ) on (a) population prevalence and (b) sex differences in prevalence (calculated as female prevalence minus male prevalence). Filled circles indicate male dispersal. Open circles indicate female dispersal. (PPTX 214 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM4_ESM.pptx (222 kb)
Fig. S4 Effects of sex-biased dispersal and migration rate (c r ) on (a) population prevalence and (b) sex differences in prevalence (calculated as female prevalence minus male prevalence). Filled circles indicate male dispersal. Open circles indicate female dispersal. (PPTX 222 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM5_ESM.pptx (217 kb)
Fig. S5 Effects of sex-biased dispersal and mortality rate (d) on (a) population prevalence and (b) sex differences in prevalence (calculated as female prevalence minus male prevalence). Filled circles indicate male dispersal. Open circles indicate female dispersal. (PPTX 216 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM6_ESM.xlsx (21 kb)
IJOP_D-13-00138R2_ESM_Main_data.xlsx (XLSX 21 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM7_ESM.txt (75 kb)
IJOP-D-13-00138R2_ESM_TreeBlock_10kTrees_Primates_Version3.nex-1.txt (TXT 74 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM8_ESM.r (9 kb)
IJOP-D-13-00138R2_ESM_STD_Model_Code.R (R 8 kb)
10764_2014_9781_MOESM9_ESM.docx (1.3 mb)
IJOP-D-13-00138R2_ESM_Eq_Prev.docx (DOCX 1307 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles L. Nunn
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Erik J. Scully
    • 1
  • Nobuyuki Kutsukake
    • 4
    • 5
  • Julia Ostner
    • 6
  • Oliver Schülke
    • 6
  • Peter H. Thrall
    • 7
  1. 1.Department of Human Evolutionary BiologyHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Evolutionary AnthropologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Duke Global Health InstituteDurhamUSA
  4. 4.Department of Evolutionary Studies of BiosystemsThe Graduate University for Advanced StudiesHayama-choJapan
  5. 5.PRESTO Researcher, Japan Science and Technology AgencyKawaguchiJapan
  6. 6.Courant Research Centre Evolution of Social BehaviourGeorg-August University GöttingenGöttingenGermany
  7. 7.CSIRO Plant IndustryCanberraAustralia

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