A perfectly ordinary situation can explode almost instantaneously when among the baboons. The handy part aspect of this is that these internal cataclysms seldom affect us researchers. A throng of juveniles will scream their lungs out for five minutes, and I'll just roll my eyes and mutter to myself about melodrama. Just today, I was surrounded by three screaming infants, and while attempting to escape the harsh sounds in the only direction open, Aaron the alpha barrels right past me at full tilt, never slowing, never laying his eyes on me for a moment. I might as well have been a column of empty air.
But I chose the word "seldom" up there for good reason. Nothing is sacred, certainly not the person of a lowly field researcher.
Chester one of the older male baboons. He's a lucky old dude - a miniature company of infants follows him for much of the day. The rest of the day they spend with mom or Bertrand. Bertrand is also old, but not quite ancient, so he probably provides more protection while still being a genial grandfather figure.
The setup prominently featured one such small infant. Chester sat about two meters away from where the infant played in a bush. Damian was a greater distance off. I stood about fifteen meters from Chester, observing his behavior. Damian then entered the vicinity nonchalantly, stopping when he came within ten meters of both Chester and myself.
Barbary macaque males use the infants as a tool for social mediation. The males will sit together and handle/play with a single infant. After a while, they might let the infant go and interact directly, through grooming perhaps.
Coming from the baboon perspective, this is very surprising. Males don't interact except to indicate submissiveness to one another. They barely even look at each other, avoiding eye contact like the plague. And I have never seen two males groom.
Yet, baboons do appear to use infants in a similar fashion. They're just far more subtle about it.
At the approach of Damian, Chester stepped forward, and reached for the infant which dangled from a thin, leafy branch. The infant was having plenty of fun on its own, and didn't appear keen on being distracted from its play by a weird old man. The infant could not compete against the old male's superior strength and bulk, thus was pulled, squawking, from the bush and clutched to Chester's hairy chest.
The infant clearly wasn't enjoying this. Chester was quite intent on maintaining his hold, at least while Damian was around. For a few moments, the three sat in stalemate, not altering their behavior. As a bystander at the time, I was barely aware of the strong undercurrents of tension flowing around and about the trio.
In animal behavior, "displacement aggression" is visible everywhere you look. Classic human example: an angry student is cheesed off at a professor for some odd reason, but he can't very well hit the prof, so he takes his anger out on a pillow or a door. He displaces the aggression onto a different object. Primates do this a lot - someone chases them away from food, and they respond by chasing a conspecific lower in the hierarchy.
Or sometimes they displace onto a different species of primate.
Damian was no closer than a decameter, but we were at the edge of the group, with no one else nearby. Damian was just sitting there, aware of the infant and Chester but not really looking at them, since they prefer to rely on the grand power of subtext. But he looked at me after I mis-stepped towards him and cracked a twig.
Damian responded by bounding towards me, firing up the engine of his roar-grunt, the male vocal precursor to the fearsome wahoo. Please note: this is always the beginning of an Oh Shit moment.
I followed the guidelines. I turned away from him, and slowly walked away. I could hear the sound getting closer, but I did not run or alter my behavior in any other way. After a few more seconds, when I could no longer feel his presence behind me, I ventured a glance, and saw Damian swaggering away, down the hill. I did what I did because that's what is known to work. An overload of adrenaline is an unfortunate and unavoidable side effect, but its worth it ever now and then (...he says in hindsight).
In the future, all I need to for protection is a whiny monkey infant on hand which I can thrust in the face of any aggressive baboon. As to why infants become pawns of the male hierarchy, we haven't the faintest clue, except what we know from the closest relevant behavior - male-infant-male sociability in barbary macaques. Maybe some other baboonists have picked up on these behaviors while watching, or maybe we're the only one's who have ever noticed. Maybe it only happens in this population or region. Maybe I'm completely wrong. It's cutting edge, after all.