Thursday, January 7

Troop Mind

A slice of like scientists and lay people tend to easily throw around the term "Hive Mind." At a glance, the wikipedia disambiguation page reveals the popular associations this slice makes. It comes as no surprise that science-fiction is given the most entries, by far. But look, there's even a little note for usage in animal behavior. Of course, it redirects one to the topic of social insects.

Entomology was, and remains, a massive sub-field within ethology. Queen-centric insects like bees and wasps contributed the word "hive" to the term, and along with termites, ants, and some other colony insects, these hive creatures defined our initial conception of the hive mind.

Thus, in order to have a hive mind, you kind of need to actually have a hive and queen and drones and workers. It part of the definition. However, big social groups have been theorized to have collective consciousnesses of their own, similar to that found in the hives.

So where am I going with this? Well, when you spend your days watching baboons, particularly big groups of baboons, you will inevtiably to wonder how they figure out what to do and where to go every day. It turns out this is a hip issue in primatology, and once again, who better to study it in than the gregarious baboons?

Simply put, a baboon's life consists of moving between a set of safe sleeping sites over the course of a day, while eating. Some form of "troop mind" manipulates the baboons so that they eventually end up at a clear destination, and usually the route they take will pass through some bountiful feeding areas.

What comprises this troop mind? The answer, of course, is that no one knows. But I've seen a few things and have a couple ideas.

The obvious assumption one would make is that the alpha male leads the group. The alpha will certainly exert his will, but its far from being so clear cut. For instance, an alpha male is little more than a donkey following a carrot when he's stalking a female in heat, his head bobbing in rapture a meter behind the female's bright red swelling. During those times, the alpha is hardly the one doing the leading. The female may exert considerable control over when, where, and how often they copulate, and the effectively controls the alpha if he wants to get the sex.

There are of course the other males in the troop as well. Unusually, the cape is home to many old males, who will of course influence the movements of the troop in part. Sometimes I'll see old Chester, off by himself, while Aaron sits in the middle of the troop watching over his females. Chester will slowly saunter ahead a little ways, bit by bit. He could be anticipating the movements of the troop, or he could be guiding them. He is an experienced and wise male, probably a strong alpha ten years ago. He doesn't get many chances to copulate anymore (if he's even interested in sex at his age), so its in interest to look out for the troop as a whole. Afterall, who knows how many of the females and sub-adult males are his children?

Those sub-adult males are a force to be reckoned with as well. When they hear another troop nearby, they'll all meander towards the edge of the group, and if they can, they'll pull the whole troop with them so they can get as close as possible to the excitement of that unknown group.

Similarly, a big fight among females might send a half dozen of them chasing each other a hundred meters away from the center of the group. The troop might be pulled in that direction, and once the whole group is reunited, what then? Do they resume their prior course, or can the momentum be shifted another way?

Troops definitely have goals they seek throughout the day, some more goals being more desirable than others. If a troop is aware of a tasty fruit orchard growing two hills over, they will all wish to head that way and feast. If the monkeys live somewhere more desolate or if the fruit is simply out of season, then the decisions become more complicated.

And when it gets this complicated, my gut observations cease to useful in distilling a root behavior. Big time research needs to be done... and some of its underway... There are benefits from being at very least tangentially involved in this stuff, you see. Much of the existing research looks at how baboons range under different conditions, but that doesn't even to begin to answer the question of who is leading the troop and just how much the baboons listen to particular individuals.

But there's always my gut to fall back on. Sure, the females can manipulate the dudes when they're in estrous, but most of the time, its the males herding and chasing the females wherever and whenever they please. The alpha female might hold the same sway as an average sub-adult male, but the strong males appear to possess what I might call veto power.

This is the great part about this kind of research: you can be gathering all kinds of quantitative data throughout the data, and still be learning more things on the side. A million social interactions happen out there which are too subtle for me to pick up, but there are still a thousand which I can wrap my brain around just by watching with my inferior human visual system.

No comments:

Post a Comment