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Baboon families enjoy socialising and community life

Posted in Animals, Nature, Psychology, Wildlife on Tuesday, 10 April 2012

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This edited article about baboons originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 687 published on 15 March 1975.

Baboons, picture, image, illustration


Like most members of the monkey and ape families, baboons are very sociable, and are, incidentally, among the closest of man’s relations. Individual baboons belong to a family and each family is a member of a larger tribe or troop. The average troop has about eighty animals living closely together, usually in rocky country or grassland with tall clumps of trees. They forage during the day for seeds, bulbs, berries, grass etc., but if food is short, they will eat insects or make organised raids near villages to steal fruit, grain and eggs.

Each family consists of an adult male who is the undisputed chief, his harem of four or five females, two or three younger males and the baboon babies. One of the oldest dominant males will also take command of the tribe when danger threatens or when they move to a new territory.

Baboon societies have a definite order of rank which affects most of their activities and which results in a well-organised community, where everyone knows his place.

The big, older males naturally come at the top of the list. During the day, while the rest of the tribe is feeding or playing, the chiefs take turns in standing guard in prominent positions, and at the first sign of danger, will give the alarm cry. If the troop is forced to flee, it does so, not in haphazard panic, but in a strictly organised manner. First come younger males, followed by females and immature baboons, then some of the chiefs surrounding the mothers and babies. Next come the rest of the subordinate males and females with the other dominant baboons forming a rearguard.

The big males can be extremely vicious. They will threaten any intruder, be it man, cheetah or dog, by screaming and baring their formidable canine teeth, if any individual is in danger of attack, they will band together in tight formation to protect him, but a badly wounded baboon will be abandoned, sacrificed to the security of the tribe as a whole.

The dominant male also seems to act as a judge on occasions. There are frequent quarrels in the community and a fight between two adults usually takes place before the leader, who acts a kind of referee. When he considers the battle has gone on long enough, he will immediately end it with a few apt grunts.

De-lousing is a passionate pastime among baboons. One animal will sit patiently, his eyes closed in dreamy enjoyment, while another picks dirt and insects from his fur. Again, it is the most dominant male who receives the most attention in this activity. No sooner has he sat down, than a handful of subordinates will rush to his side to perform this apparently pleasing task.

Young males and females come right at the bottom of the baboon scale of hierarchy, but mothers with infants achieve this temporary high status. The chiefs are nearly always at their side and mother and baby, too, are surrounded by those eager to de-louse them. Baboons make good mothers, constantly cuddling their babies, who for the first five weeks of their life, cling tenaciously to their mother’s fur. Later they will ride on the mother’s back, even sleeping there, and although she runs and leaps around, they somehow never fall off.

As soon as they are old enough, the young baboons form little play groups of friends and spend most of their time playing. One of the favourite games is a kind of “tag”, in which one baboon will pull another’s tail or ear then run off and the whole group will excitedly chase after him. Sometimes the game will get too rough and a fight breaks out, but then an adult will quickly step in to box the ears of the offenders. Mothers always keep a close eye on their offspring and if, for example, one should be eating something he is forbidden, she will prise open his mouth and take it from him, following up with a hearty smack.

As night begins to fall, the baboon colony lapses into a noisy chaos as the scramble for beds in the trees and rocks begins. It is the old chiefs who cause the most trouble, unceremoniously pushing aside females and young males in their search for an ideal perch. As soon as the leaders are settled down, the rest of the tribe can relax. All the noise and bustle dies away as the energetic baboons sleep securely, out of reach of all enemies.

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