Why Primates Kill Their Offspring – Facts So Romantic

There’s something morbidly fascinating about animals that seem to behave pathologically: The female praying mantis engaging in sexual cannibalism, the fish eating its own fry.

It was this sort of twisted behavior that first drew anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Sarah Hrdy (pronounced Hur-dee) to study langurs in Mount Abu, in India. The males among these large, gray-haired monkeys were killing their own colony’s infants; at the time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, researchers thought the pressures of overcrowding were the cause. What Hrdy found, however, was that these langurs’ infanticidal tendencies were actually adaptive behavior-behavior that, she argues, one can also see in humans.

In the langur colonies she observed, infanticides were hardly indiscriminate, which is what you might expect if the killings were driven by some kind of psychological anguish. In fact, the males never attacked their own offspring, and the ones they did knock off were less than six-months old-infants that were still suckling. This led Hrdy to conclude that infanticide was an effective tactic to allow mothers to mate. They can’t mate while they’re lactating because lactation suppresses ovulation. But they stop lactating once they’re childless. Killing baby langurs increases a male’s opportunity to…

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