Alpha Male Capuchins (Cebus capucinus imitator) as Keystone Individuals

  • Katharine M. JackEmail author
  • Linda M. Fedigan
Part of the Developments in Primatology: Progress and Prospects book series (DIPR)


A keystone individual is defined as an individual that has a disproportionate impact on group dynamics relative to its representation in the population. Here we use over 30 years of behavioural, physiological, paternity, and demographic data collected on the Santa Rosa, Costa Rica, capuchin population to address the question of whether or not alpha male white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus imitator) are keystone individuals. Within groups of white-faced capuchins, the alpha male is easily distinguished from other adult males. He is usually of prime age (10–15 years) and often the largest male due to his pronounced secondary sexual characteristics. He is the most central adult male and the recipient of the highest rates of grooming. He is also the most active participant during encounters with predators and extragroup individuals. Using naturally occurring dispersal events, we assess the impact of the removal of an alpha versus subordinate adult male on group dynamics, specifically infant mortality. We found that infant mortality following the removal of an alpha male was more than double the rate observed following the removal of a subordinate adult male. The removal of an alpha male has additional consequences for group success, individual life histories, and population conservation that extend far beyond the immediate aftermath of an alpha male replacement. Based on these findings, we conclude that alpha male white-faced capuchins are keystone individuals, and future research should focus on identifying the factors that enable some males to attain alpha status while others live out their lives as subordinates.


Keystone individual Alpha male Dominance Demography Infant mortality 



We thank the Costa Rican National Park Service for permission to work in Santa Rosa National Park from 1983 to 1989 and the administrators of the Área de Conservación Guanacaste (especially Sr. Roger Blanco Segura) for allowing us to continue our research in the park through the present day. Over the years, many students and local assistants have contributed to the life-history database on the Santa Rosa monkeys, and we are very thankful to all of them. Dr. John Addicott developed the database, which he has since maintained with the help of a series of technicians, to whom we are also grateful. K.M. Jack’s research has been supported by the National Geographic Society, Leakey Foundation, Nacey Maggioncalda Foundation, Louisiana Board of Regents, National Science Foundation (grant 0926039), Sigma Xi, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Alberta Heritage Scholarship Fund, Killam Foundation, Royal Anthropological Institute, and grants from Tulane University’s Research Enhancement Grant, Newcomb Institute, Stone Center for Latin American Studies, Carol Lavin Bernick Grant, and Lurcy Grants. L.M. Fedigan’s research has been supported by the Canada Research Chairs Program and since 1983 by ongoing Discovery Grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). We are thankful to Dr. Susan Perry, Urs Kalbitzer, and one anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this manuscript.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyTulane UniversityNew OrleansUSA
  2. 2.Department of Anthropology and ArchaeologyUniversity of CalgaryCalgaryCanada

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