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A Kinder, Gentler Baboon
13 April 2004 (All day)
Nasty, brutish, and short--Thomas Hobbes's famous description of life without government could as easily be applied to baboons. The primates are famous for their bad manners. However, a troop of baboons in Kenya has recently changed its ways. Researchers suggest that the relatively peaceable behavior is a type of culture that's passed on to newcomers to the troop.
Baboon culture is rife with violence. Males fight over females, food, resting spots, and sometimes for no apparent reason. The most serious altercations are usually between baboons of close rank; but baboons low on the totem pole get bullied all the time by higher-ups looking for an ego boost.
Now it appears that one troop has found a better way. Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist at Stanford University in California, observed a troop of savanna baboons, dubbed Forest Troop, from the late 1970s until 1986, when an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis killed off the most aggressive males in the group. After the deaths of so many of the members, Sapolsky abandoned his study and stayed away for 10 years.
In the 13 April PLoS Biology, Sapolsky and his wife and colleague Lisa Share describe the dramatic changes they found when they returned. Members sat closer together and groomed each other more. The dominance hierarchy remained--Number Two still scrapped with Numbers One and Three as in a normal troop--but the higher-ranking baboons didn't vent their anger on subordinates. And that's apparently improved life for lowlier baboons; they don't have the classic markers of chronic stress--such as elevated levels of stress hormones--found in their peers in other troops. The most remarkable observation, however, was that the troop had apparently maintained the peace despite a complete turnover in the male population. Normally aggressive male adolescent baboons leave their native troop and slowly work into a new one; Forest Troop had somehow managed to assimilate these surly newcomers without losing its peaceful culture.
Sapolsky and Share are still unsure how the culture is being passed on, but they suspect that it has to do with the observed friendly attitude of the female baboons towards newcomer males. "Sapolsky's research seems to show that the female baboons have 'seen the light,' " and realized that life is better with peaceful males, says Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta. But how the females might calm the waters is still unknown.