Baboons demonstrate social proficiency

Wild baboons may look fierce and uncouth, but don’t underestimate their social aptitude, suggest two studies in the Nov. 14 Science.

Previous research showed that female baboons recognize the voices of close maternal relatives. The animals can also readily tell from vocal encounters who’s dominant over whom within their own families.

Biologist Thore J. Bergman of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his colleagues wanted to know whether female baboons could also discern dominance relationships between members of their own family and those of other families in the same community.

To find out, the researchers exposed a group of females to recordings of heated vocal exchanges between female members of the listeners’ community in Botswana. The animals spent more time looking toward the loud speakers when the recorded confrontations were between individuals from different families and the lower-ranking animal took the offensive. The researchers propose that such encounters attract attention because they signal possible changes in the social ranks of individuals throughout the community.

Baboons showed less interest in recordings hinting of rank reversals within the same family, perhaps because such spats have narrower social implications.

The second study, led by anthropologist Joan B. Silk of the University of California, Los Angeles, illuminates the social politics of childrearing. Female baboons who forged close ties to kin and community members—largely through frequent, mutual grooming—raised substantially more than their share of infants to at least age 1, when the chances of surviving to adulthood greatly increase. Socially connected females may receive baby-friendly perks, such as protection from harassment or access to others’ food, the researchers theorize. The findings come from 108 adult female baboons monitored in Kenya for 16 years.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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