Strong social networks benefit baboons

May 9th, 2009 - 3:17 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, May 9 (ANI): A monkey communication expert at the University of Pennsylvania has suggested that baboons benefit from strong social networks.

Robert Seyfarth came up with this proposition while delivering a lecture on May 5, the kick-off of the University of Delaware’s Year of Darwin celebration, where he told a true story about a female baboon that herded goats in an African village.

He revealed that the baboon knew all of the relationships between the goats so well that at night she would carry a bleating kid from one barn directly to its mother in another barn.

“For all the centuries we’ve bred dogs, no dog has exhibited this knowledge of kids and mothers. The question is where does this mind come from?” said the Psychology professor at the university.

Seyfarth revealed that he and his research partner Dorothy Cheney, who happens to be his spouse, studied the baboons of Botswana’s Okavanga Delta from 1992 to 2008.

He said that his study suggested that the baboon’s ability to recognize social relationships was due to natural selection.

The researcher revealed that the baboons studied live in groups of 80-90 individuals. Males would leave the group in which they were born, while females stayed in the group for their entire lives, with close bonds to female relatives.

He said that the females were arranged in a matrilineal hierarchy of families, with ranks maintained for years. Although once in a while a coup was attempted, such moves were not often successful.

In their experiments, the researchers observed that baboons with names like Sylvia, Champagne, and Helen, and recorded their language, which consisted of no more than 18 sounds, and the interactions of their families.

They found that baboons used certain calls only in certain contexts. Screams and fear barks were only given from a lower-ranking to a higher-ranking baboon, while threat grunts were given only from a higher-ranking to a lower-ranking baboon.

The researchers recorded the various calls, played them in situations that “break the rules”, and determined from the animals’ behaviour that baboons were able to put together the discrete elements of identity, kinship, and rank.

“The animals somehow see this world in all of its complexity. It’s an innate property of the baboon mind — done instantly and unconsciously,” Seyfarth said.

He and Cheney were also able to measure the animals’ stress levels by analysing faecal samples for gluccocorticoid stress hormones. They found that pregnancy and incidences of predation to be major stressors.

Also, some high-ranking males practice infanticide, targeting infants by rank. Mothers may form relationships with lower-ranking males who will help look after their babies.

“Females respond to stress by associating with their closest grooming relationships. They turn to their support network if they lose someone. They broaden and extend to replace old relationships with new ones. Female baboons with strong social bonds survive better,” Seyfarth said.

Seyfarth and Cheney’s work is highlighted in the award-winning book Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2007. (ANI)

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