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Photograph by Virginia Morell

Pete's Fall From Grace

By Miki Meek

Four months after author Virginia Morell left the Ethiopian highlands, Pete became another statistic in a girls-rule world. His once crimson chest turned pale pink, his golden mane lost its shimmer, and his run slowed down to a shuffle—the tell-tale signs of a washed-up male whose family has found a younger, more attentive gelada to fulfill all their grooming and mating needs.  

But his defeat to a male four years his junior, named Sam, was no surprise. "It was inevitable," says Chadden Hunter, a wildlife biologist who studies geladas in Simen Mountains National Park. "Pete stayed with his female consorts for four years when most males in this matriarchal society lose their slots before they hit three years of tenure." A weak, injured hand that was slow to heal also opened him up to challengers like Sam, who zeroed in on an opportunity to finally mate.  

"His injured hand was really the beginning of the end," Hunter added. "And what was most distressing about the takeover was watching Pete try so desperately to hold on."  

For months Sam paraded by with a rowdy band of bachelors Hunter calls the Jets, after the West Side Story gang, testing Pete and showing off for the four females in his family unit as they grazed. And each time Pete battled back, chasing the young gelada into the woods and up and down hills.

But Sam kept hedging closer to the rim of the family circle, until one by one, the females—Cathy, Sandy, Jenny, and Monica—began grooming with him, then mating, signaling to Pete that he was finished. They had selected a new family male.  

Pete quickly accepted this decision. He went to Sam, turned his back to him, and crouched down low—a sign of resignation. Then he got up and immediately began grooming his successor. "It was almost as if Pete was relieved," Hunter says. "Grooming is a way for two males to make peace, and it's kind of like their saying to each other, 'Man that was rough week. Thank God the women have made their decision, and we can get on with our new roles.'" 

Although Pete's mating rights are gone forever, his presence in the family is not. After males are ousted from their top spot, they continue to stay with the group, where they take on a more submissive, "grandfatherly" role. Male geladas have a life expectancy of 12 to 14 years, putting Pete, already 12, in his elderly years. So he spends his days keeping an eye on the six infants he fathered and breaking up family squabbles. However, his days are probably numbered. When male geladas lose their primary position, they usually don't live more than a year, Hunter says.

As for Sam, things are golden right now, but Cathy, Sandy, Monica, and Jenny all have infant daughters from Pete, and once they sexually mature, Sam's job is going to get a lot more demanding.  

"It's sweet to see Pete just chilling out and protecting the young ones," Hunter says. "Sam, on the other hand, has a fair bit on his plate because servicing four females, along with their daughters, is pretty difficult to do. I think we can bet that he's going to have a hard time keeping a hold of this group."

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