A group of baboons spreads out in a wooded area. From the sounds they make, it seems like theyre exchanging contact barks with one another. But the purpose isnt to inform separated individuals of the groups whereabouts. Individuals simply make the sounds when they are alone or on the periphery, according to Cheney and Seyfarth.
One key difference between humans and non-human primates that is explored in their research is theory of mind: Humans have it; monkeys and apes dont. Identified in the late 1970s by then-Penn psychologists David Premack and Guy Woodruff Gr77, theory of mind is an ability to attribute mental states to others and take them into consideration during ones communications. Humans arent born with this ability but learn it through experience.
To give an example, if you show a three-year-old a box of candy and ask whats inside, the child will guess candy. If you then show the child that the box actually contains matches and ask him what his friend Freddy will say is inside the box, the three-year-old will say matches. Thats because before age five or six children dont recognize the difference between what they and others know.
Monkeys and apes dont try to inform those who are ignorant or instruct their offspring that something is dangerous for them. Seyfarth and Cheney have found that while baboon vocalizations often function to alter the behavior of listeners, there is no evidence that callers take into account their audiences mental state. Similarly, they write, listeners responses seem governed primarily by learned behavioral contingencies rather than any appreciation of signalers motives or beliefs.
Their interest in the relationship between the natural communication of primates and human language contrasts sharply with well-publicized studies in which chimpanzees or gorillas have been brought to the lab and taught a form of human language. Though research in captivity can yield valuable information that is difficult or impossible to obtain in the wild, you run the risk that your results will give a false picture of the animals behavior under natural conditions, Cheney and Seyfarth write. They prefer to study how primates communicate on their own terms in their natural habitats.
Most researchers who come to the Moremi Game Reserve to study baboons need at least six weeks to tell the individual animals apart from one another. As Cheney describes it, its a time of unrelieved tedium and desperation, boredom, and frustration, relieved only by the beautiful scenery and the occasional threat of being charged by wild buffaloes. (The key is to spot them before they spot you, Seyfarth says, then to move out of the area as quickly as possible.)
Gradually, as one gets to know all the baboons, they become like characters in an incredible soap opera, Seyfarth says.
Episode 1: Sierra, whos much higher ranking, goes over to handle Hannahs baby. Hannah threatens Sierra, and as a result, Sierra backs off. An hour later Sierra approaches Hannah again. Hannah acts nervous. Shes done something she shouldnt have. But she lets her guard down when Sierra grunts and smacks her lips in the way that baboons do to show benign intent. Suddenly Sierra jumps on Hannah and bites her.
Jane Austens characters dont go that far, but like most interesting dramas, this one leaves room for interpretation. On the one hand you could say Sierra has been sitting here fuming for the last hour because she was threatened when she shouldnt have been, and she fakes being nice to Hannah to get even, Cheney says. On the other hand, it could also be that Sierra is like, Oh I want to go be near Hannah, Hannah has a baby. Oh, wait a minute. I seem to remember Im angry at her. Which is less complex. Perhaps later episodes with a larger cast of characters will offer more clues.
Actual fights among adults are pretty rare in the day-to-day existence of baboons, which is often spent finding food and avoiding predators. But there is plenty of material to keep the researchers occupied. We can go out for a day of watching with one of our post-docsand if you were with us, you wouldnt be hearing any screaming or shouting, Seyfarth says. You wouldnt see any rage of nature, tooth and claw. But on the way back, your post-doc would turn to you and say, Do you detect a seething tension between this family and another? And youd say, Absolutely.
This summer Seyfarth and Cheney will return to the field to continue their research on the role that hormones and personality may play in the social hierarchy of baboons. Hormones associated with stress may account for certain personality differences; one unglamorous but noninvasive way to find out is collecting and testing baboons fecal samples. (The Bingley sisters would be most appalled.)
There are alpha females and there are alpha females, Seyfarth says. Some of the top-ranking females are really insecurevery aggressive, gratuitously nasty. (Think of Mr. Bingleys sisters ridiculing Eliza Bennets wild hair and muddy petticoat.) There are other females that are sort of the grand dames, dispensing friendly gestures throughout the group.
In addition, Cheney says, there are some low-ranking females everyone seems to like even though they are low ranking. That would explain the social rise of Jane and Eliza Bennet.
But thats another story.
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