In the middle of the 1980s, a catastrophic event shattered the lives of a troop of olive baboons (Papio anubis) living in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya. While the troop ultimately survived the experience, it emerged as a fundamentally transformed society with new cultural traditions. This is its story.
The troop, known as the Forest Troop, was initially very much like other olive baboon troops – that is to say, an extremely hierarchical and aggressive society, fraught with battles for dominance and bullying of subordinates. While a female will remain with her birth troop for life and automatically inherit her mother’s social ranking, a male reaching adolescence must set off on his own to find a new troop and then jockey with other males for position on the social ladder. The stakes are high, as baboon society is polygamous and dominant males enjoy the best access to mating and food resources.
And so it was. The Forest Troop lived in the woods and slept in trees about a kilometer from the open-air garbage pit of a nearby tourist lodge. Over time, many of its most aggressive males got into the habit of traveling to the garbage pit at dawn in order to scavenge for food, fighting for scraps with the males of a neighboring troop.
Then, in 1983, disaster struck. Spoiled meat that had been discarded in the garbage pit caused a fatal epidemic of bovine tuberculosis. Every single Forest Troop male who had foraged for food at the pit – 46% of the troop’s adult males – died in the outbreak. The remainder of the devastated troop, comprised solely of females and less aggressive males, survived.
In the wake of the outbreak, researchers who had been observing the Forest Troop noticed a dramatic reduction in certain types of aggressive behavior within the troop, not a particularly surprising observation given the loss of all of the most aggressive males in the troop. However, because the researchers wanted to focus on an intact troop that hadn’t experienced social disruption, they turned their attention away from the Forest Troop and shifted their efforts to studying a nearby troop that hadn’t been impacted by the outbreak.
A number of years later, though, the researchers returned to the Forest Troop and noticed something fascinating – even though there had been a complete changeover in the troop’s adult males, the troop’s less aggressive behavioral features had persisted. That is, a new generation of baboons in the Forest Troop appeared to be carrying on what amounted to a cultural tradition of lessened baboon aggression.
In order to analyze the changed behavior more rigorously, the researchers engaged in what’s known as a “focal sampling” process. They systematically recorded the social behavior of individual Forest Troop baboons from 1993 through 1996, and then compared those observations to two other data sets that served as controls – pre-outbreak observations they had made of the Forest Troop from 1979 to 1982, and mid-1990s observations of a different olive baboon troop.
What they found bore out their initial impressions. In particular, the new generation of Forest Troop baboons displayed patterns of dominance and aggression behavior that created less stress for low-ranking males. While the overall number of incidents involving aggression and dominance behavior was comparable to that seen in the control cases, the mix was different. Forest Troop confrontations were now significantly more likely to involve closely-ranked males, as opposed to the control group behavior pattern in which very high ranking males tended to pick on the lowest-ranking ones. This is notable, as confrontations between baboons with large power disparities typically reflect harassment rather than true competition and can be particularly stressful to the lower-ranking subordinates. Moreover, in the post-epidemic Forest Troop, males acted less aggressively towards females, engaged in more social grooming with females, sat in closer proximity to other baboons, and were more likely to have adult females, infants, adolescents, and juveniles as neighbors. Finally, the researchers found that subordinate baboons in the kinder and gentler Forest Troop had much lower levels of glucocorticoids, adrenal hormones secreted in response to stress, than did subordinates in the control groups.
The researchers next considered how the peaceful new social traditions of the Forest Troop were being passed on to new males joining the troop: were troop members teaching the newcomers to be less aggressive, were new arrivals learning through observation or because they had more opportunities for friendly interactions, or was self-selection causing less aggressive males to gravitate toward this more peaceful troop? The researchers found that new males acted with typical aggression upon arriving at Forest Troop and were greeted with the usual belligerence from other males, but that the Forest Troop females were now uncharacteristically welcoming to the new arrivals, grooming them and otherwise treating them as established residents. Because the females didn’t seem to be engaged in active teaching behavior (they showed the same friendly behavior to even the most aggressive of the newcomers), the researchers concluded that the peaceful Forest Troop cultural traditions were most likely being passed on as newcomers observed more positive interactions with females and had more opportunities to relate non-aggressively themselves.
So, out of ashes of death, a baboon troop forged a new culture and found a way to maintain its peaceful traditions, passing them along to new generations. Makes one think….
Sapolsky, R., & Share, L. (2004). A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission PLoS Biology, 2 (4) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020106.