Not All Men Cheat: The Only Truly Monogamous Primates Are Owl Monkeys

By Ben Wolford on March 23, 2014 3:43 PM EDT

Azara's owl monkeys, like this one, are the only truly monogamous primates. Humans fail miserably. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Azara's owl monkeys, like this one, are the only truly monogamous primates. Humans fail miserably. (Photo: Shutterstock)

When it comes to being true to their women, the Azara's owl monkey of Argentina is the most faithful primate species. Homo sapiens wasn't even in the running.

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"There is nothing like this in other primates or mammals," Eduardo Fernandez-Duque, co-author of a new study, told NBC News. "Every single male studied over 18 years in captivity and in the field has shown devoted care." He and a team of scientists recently put those years of owl monkey monogamy to the test — the paternity test — to find out whether the devotion they seem to display toward their mates and children isn't just a cover for covert sexual dalliance. The results, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, confirmed their suspicion: these guys are the real deal.

Almost no other animal species is truly sexually monogamous. In a world where genetic propagation is life's highest aim, and where most physical attributes have evolved purely to increase the chances of procreation, having sex early and often — and with as many females as possible — is a common reproductive strategy. One species of mouse-like marsupial, for example, has sex so frantically upon hitting puberty that many of them die from their exertions. Males, of course, aren't the only cheaters. Australian fairywrens are famously philandering females.

Yet some species appear to behave in a very loyal, nuclear family kind of way. Before the present owl monkey study, science knew of only four animals — a species of mouse, rat, antelope dik-dik, and coyote — that practiced true monogamy. The owl monkey, meanwhile, appeared to be monogamous: fathers cared intensely for their children and remained committed to their mates. But biologists distinguish between this appearance of monogamy and genetic monogamy. Males of some species are known to care for offspring that aren't theirs, like human step-fathers.

So a team of researchers led by Maren Huck, of the University of Derby, set out to observe and test a group of 128 Argentine owl monkeys. They documented their family groups and then took DNA samples back to the lab. After sequencing 14 regions of the monkeys' genomes, "they found no evidence of extra-pair paternity," according to the University of Pennsylvania in a news release. Additionally, the study showed that owl monkeys make some of the best fathers; they spend a great amount of time caring for their children. This, in turn, could make them more attractive to females — "a mating strategy in itself," the university says.

"Our study is the first of any primate species, and only the fourth for a pair-living mammal, to show genetic monogamy, or real faithfulness, between partners," Fernandez-Duque says. "Paternal care in owl monkeys now makes sense. The males are making a huge investment in their own offspring."

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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