Baboons prefer dining with friends

Jul 06, 2011 By Tamera Jones
Baboons prefer dining with friends
Scanning for a foraging opportunity.

Mealtimes can be a fraught business for the wild baboons of the Namib Desert. There's little food about, which means they have to share. Unsurprisingly, skirmishes often break out.

Now researchers have discovered that dominant are less likely to fight over food when they share it with baboons they have a close social bond with. And it turns out that the baboons they're closest to tend not to be relatives, but friends.

"We found that our baboons tended to associate with their closest friends when feeding," says Dr. Andrew King from the Royal Veterinary College in London, the study's lead author. "Since only a few baboons can fit into a tree to eat, a baboon with many friends is likely to get more food."

, , and most other build alliances through grooming, sometimes spending up to 20 per cent of the day stroking and scratching each other. Indeed, primate experts often say that grooming is the social glue of primate life. They use it to reduce tension and stress, to build , and not least, to get sex.

"Dominance is pretty stable in a baboon troop, and you tend to be stuck with the rank of your mother. But if you're born into a low rank, you can use grooming to get by," King explains.

Earlier studies on Japanese macaques had found that grooming 'promotes tolerance during foraging.' But this study and others like it tended to focus on pairs of monkeys.

But King was keen to understand how relationships between many members of a baboon troop influence social foraging patterns. So he followed 14 of the animals around all day every day for two seven-month chunks of time, recording a mind-boggling 5000 'foraging events.'

The troop he studied live on the edge of the Namib Desert as part of the Tsaobis Baboon Project run from the Zoological Society of London. "We had to study them during the dry season, which runs from May to December in the Namib Desert. When the rains come, we have to go home and wait until the following year" King says.

Earlier studies had shown that Japanese macaques are more likely to tolerate each other if they've become close through mutual grooming.

"Before now, people had analysed primate relationships by studying only pairs of individuals. But the method we used let us look at the bigger picture," he says.

King and his colleagues built complex networks which showed who dined with whom in the entire troop. "It's this approach that makes our study novel," he explains. The team is the first to look at social foraging in a big network.

They expected the baboons' preferred foraging partners would either be those they share strong social bonds with, or those they're closely related to, since both might reduce the chance of the diners fighting over food.

Female baboons tend to stay in the same troop into which they were born. But males usually transfer from another group. So you might expect that baboons would support their closest relations. One study in 2004 showed that closely-related baboons in a troop back each other up when it comes to social conflict for example.

In their networks, the researchers found more dominant animals in the middle, with the underlings on the periphery.

"We found a weak correlation between co-feeding and kinship in our study group, but a much stronger relationship between grooming and co-feeding," says King.

Males dominate in typical baboon troops, mostly because they're so much bigger than females: they decide who should eat with whom.

"But if a more subordinate baboon has invested time grooming the dominant male, the dominant male appears to much more tolerant of them," King says.

"Baboons try hard to avoid a fight, because it can be so costly. They have huge canines that can do a lot of damage," he adds.

Explore further: The influence of the Isthmus of Panama in the evolution of freshwater shrimps in America

More information: Andrew J. King, et al., The dining etiquette of desert baboons: the roles of social bonds, kinship, and dominance in co-feeding networks, American Journal of Primatology, Volume 73, Issue 8, pages 768-774, August 2011, Article first published online: 18 JAN 2011, DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20918

Related Stories

For female baboons, too, it's good to have friends

Jul 01, 2010

Female baboons that maintain closer ties with other members of their troop live substantially longer than do those whose social bonds are less stable, a recent study has found. The researchers say that the ...

Close social ties make baboons better mothers

Jun 10, 2009

Baboons whose mothers have strong relationships with other females are much more likely to survive to adulthood than baboons reared by less social mothers, according to a new study by researchers at UCLA, ...

Execretion analysis aids primate social studies

Feb 15, 2009

The arrival of molecular genetic analysis of both genes and hormones is providing scientists unexpected and unprecedented information about animals -- provided the researchers can find ways to get acceptable samples, said ...

Recommended for you

Dogs hear our words and how we say them

17 hours ago

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said—those consonants and vowels strung together into words and sentences—but also to other features of that speech—the ...

Amazonian shrimps: An underwater world still unknown

19 hours ago

A study reveals how little we know about the Amazonian diversity. Aiming to resolve a scientific debate about the validity of two species of freshwater shrimp described in the first half of the last century, ...

Factors that drive sexual traits

20 hours ago

Many male animals have multiple displays and behaviours to attract females; and often the larger or greater the better.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.