Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gregarious Primates

rate high on the list of intelligent primates. They are gregarious animals, live in troops of up to 50 or more, and have a well-developed social structure.

This is neither a gorilla nor a chimpanzee, but in fact a Chacma baboon, the only species of baboon native to South Africa. It represents the largest member of the monkey family. The subject in my photo is probably a dominant male, also known as an alpha-male and leader of a troop. Chacmas are omnivorous and forage for wild fruit, bulbs, roots, seeds, insects, scorpions, lizards and bird eggs.

Trivia: a mature male measures about 1.5m from head to tail, and weighs 30kg or more. The life expectancy is between 20 and 30 years.

How human-like is this posture? I've often had the chance to observe how engagingly human-like baboons are, but I must admit, the "attitude" of this baboon still caught me off-guard, sitting comfortably, just like an "old" man, in the fork of a tree. It's no wonder that because of its high intelligence and humanoid habits, the Chacma baboon rates amongst "favourites to spot" during game drives.

Mutual grooming amongst primates has two purposes: they keep each others' fur clean AND that promotes harmony (a sense of well-being?) within a troop. Can we learn something from the latter? After all, we are closely related: primates (in general) are divided into 5 divisions - the most primitive are prosimians (in SA including e.g. the bushbaby), then the somewhat more complex monkeys (in SA e.g. Vervet monkey and Chacma baboon), then the lesser & great apes (the latter including gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees) and highest on the list are humans - also known as the most dominant and successful group of primates!?

Trivia: chimpanzees share 98% of DNA with humans - sadly that's the main reason why they are often used in scientific experimentation.

More human-like characteristics are "exposed" in this photo (in South Africa, we would call this an ag shame, sweet-moment). Although a disobedient baboon youngster can expect to be disciplined with a cuff from an adult male, the bond between adults and their offspring within a troop is often clearly on display. What amazed me during this "photo-session" is that the visible exchange of trust and affection, is "happening" between a youngster and a male, instead of between a female and her offspring. The mother is in the picture, though, protectively watching procedures.

Chacma baboons "carry" their tails in a characteristic "shepherd's crook" position, whilst the youngster in the photo (right) appears to be playfully trying to straighten the crook - or does it remind you of an action like pulling a chain? Whatever the case, the habit of juvenile baboons forming playgroups represents an important means by which youngsters learn new skills - and reveal human-like characteristics in this process. For which adult hasn't endured being pestered in one way or another, by a youngster?

After a gestation period of 6 months, a female baboon produces a single offspring and doesn't mate again for the following 18 months.
A newborn tends to cling to its mother (left)
or learns to "hitch a ride, jockey-style" once it gets older.

Now to the sad part - baboons are being threatened due to conflict with humans! The photo (left) reveals a typical example of confrontational behaviour by a baboon (as is often the case on the Cape Peninsula - this photo was taken at Cape Point). After years of being fed by visitors to the nature reserve, the baboons have become aggressive (= they expect to be fed!!). Whenever these baboons detect an opportunity to "steal" food from unsuspecting visitors - unfortunately, mostly from defenceless, young children - they take action. A law prohibiting people from feeding animals (who already have learned to help themselves!) therefore appears ineffective. Apart from that, most tourists (foreign and local) find it highly amusing when a baboon (like the one in my photo) reveals the learned tendency of opening packets of (stolen) food, lifting the lids off ice-cream tubs, or even pulling the seals off cold-drink tins. Talk about intelligence!?

Cause for concern for conservationists: in provincial legislation the chacma baboon is NOT classified as a game species - therefore can be shot without a permit!

On a lighter note - during a family "outing" along the western coast of our country, we saw a baboon perched on a water-reservoir, whilst the sheep, standing around, appeared more perplexed than frightened. Once the baboon "sailed" down to the ground, he calmly walked towards the herd of sheep - almost as if the baboon was "paid" to do the job of herding sheep! Now, baboons are often described as having "dog-like" faces (something I hate to hear, as I've explained before, when wild animals are compared with domestic animals). Well, I must admit, during this experience I couldn't help "falling in this trap", since it does appear as if this baboon reveals (sheep-) dog-like symptoms. Surely the farmer didn't train the baboon to herd his sheep??


Carolyn said...

I have actually heard anecdotal reports of baboons being used as shepherds in South Africa. Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, who for decades have studied baboon communication and knowledge of social hierarchies, mention some cases in their book, "Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind."
Maybe the baboon you saw really is a trained shepherd! At the very least, it's a fantastic picture.

Angelika's World in Photos said...

Hi and thanks for this information, Carolyn. Yes, since I posted this photo I've also heard about this "habit" of training baboons as shepherds. I find this fascinating and will certainly "check out" the link you provided.