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Sue Margulis

Committee on Evolutionary Biology
University of Chicago

Reproductive aging in non-human primates: Menopause is not just for humans anymore

Friday, March 13, 2009
Engineering Building 110, 4:00 PM


Menopause, as applied to humans, is defined as the cessation of menstruation that results from loss of ovarian activity followed by an extended post-reproductive lifespan. A number of theories have been proposed to explain the adaptive significance of such an extended post-reproductive lifespan, including the “grandmother” theory, and the “good mother” theory. Alternatively, post-reproductive lifespan has been interpreted as a recent and unavoidable consequence of living longer. To what extent does a post-reproductive lifespan occur in other mammalian species? All organisms cease reproducing at some point in their lives, but typically, the time course of reproductive and somatic aging are sufficiently close that an extended post-reproductive lifespan is unlikely. Recent research however, is beginning to uncover opportunities for lengthy post-reproductive periods, both in wild and managed populations of mammals. Here, I describe the results of ongoing investigations on the extent of reproductive aging in managed populations of gorillas. Behavioral and hormonal studies have clearly demonstrated that menopause, and perimenopause, occur in gorillas, and that 25% or more of a females’ life may be post-reproductive. We found a strong relationship between hormonal and behavioral patterns of reproduction. Among non-human primates, we are now beginning to recognize that a post-reproductive lifespan is by no means ubiquitous, but indeed occurs in a range of anthropoid primates. As we continue our investigations, we anticipate identifying similar age-related changes in reproduction in other species, as well as other age-related, hormone-mediated physiological changes.


  • Education
    • 1982 B.S., Magna Cum Laude with Honors, Bucknell University. Animal Behavior.
    • 1985 M.A. University of Colorado, Boulder. Environmental, Population, and Organismic Biology.
    • 1996 Ph.D. University of Chicago. Committee on Evolutionary Biology.
    • 1996-1997 Postdoctoral fellow, University of Chicago, Dept. of Ecology and Evolution, and Brookfield Zoo, Department of Conservation Biology
    • 1998-2000 Post-doctoral fellow, Northwestern University, School of Education and Social Policy and Brookfield Zoo. NSF post-doctoral fellowship in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education.
  • Employment
    • 2004-2009 Curator of Primates, Lincoln Park Zoo
    • 2000-2004 Behavioral Research Manager, Brookfield Zoo
    • 2000- Lecturer, Committee on Evolutionary Biology, The University of Chicago
    • 1988-1990 Sample Custodian and Assistant Quality Control Officer, Upstate Laboratories, Syracuse, NY
    • 1985-1988 Zoo Keeper, Burnet Park Zoo, Syracuse, NY

Research Interests

My research has long focused on issues relating to managed (zoo) populations, including inbreeding effects on behavior, environmental influences on reproductive and parental behavior, and behavioral monitoring. My current research program on aging began in 2002 in an effort to answer the very basic, applied question: does a 37 year old gorilla need to be placed on birth control? This has since expanded to encompass both applied and theoretical aspects of reproductive aging in a growing number of primate species.


  1. Sexual and Hormonal Cycles in Geriatric Gorilla gorilla gorilla
  2. Primate Reproductive Aging: From Lemurs to Humans

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