Wednesday, March 30

A Solemn Farewell

South Africa Euthanizes Well-Known Baboon
CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South African officials said Friday that they had euthanized the country's most famous baboon, known as Fred, who was well-known for raiding cars and frightening tourists along Cape Town's scenic route.  Read more...

I didn't know Fred. I know a different baboon by that name, which was pure coincidence. Our baboons generally had odd names, which is what happens when someone lets me name anything. On the other hand, there is a cohort of well-known males scattered around the Cape Peninsula, with simple, friendly names like Fred, David, George, and Erik.

Right there is one place this story goes odd. As far as I have ever known, Erik is the most famous male baboon on the Cape Peninsula, since he is incredibly old, but quite active, and apparently manages to maintain legitimate alpha male status among his troop (I've heard that from sources I actually probably can trust), despite being over 20. See, that's old.

Calling Fred a "ringleader" was an odd choice. I suppose that could makes sense from a troop mind perspective, but I'm sure that wasn't what was running through the author's mind when he wrote it. I suppose that the paragraph is technically not incorrect, but they sure made the event sound like some kind of tactical black ops mission:
"In 2009, Fred led a group of 29 baboons in a four-car raid outside Simon's Town, a small coastal neighborhood. The baboon chief used his signature tactic of opening unlocked doors and jumping through windows to search for food, while the rest looked for access inside from car roofs and hoods."
Last time was in 2009? I assure you those baboons raided much more recently than that. Its such an odd paragraph for anyone who knows anything. Its like the author googled "Fred baboon Cape Town" and only looked at the first news result that cropped up.

However, if opening car doors truly was Fred's signature move, then I might have seen him on one of his raids while driving past Simon's Town. A large male opened someone's back door and stole their sandwich and bag of crisps. On the other hand, I've seen an awful lot of baboons try (and sometimes succeed at) opening car doors, so I would not consider this behavior to be any baboon's signature.

Nevertheless, it is as the baboon management group says, "this baboon's demise can be contributed mainly to the continuous misguided efforts by humans to befriend and feed baboons." See you space... monkey.

Thursday, March 24

Troop Mind Journal 03/23

The troop mind is assumed to take form at some unclear point in the morning. When the baboons are starting to wake up, a few are on the ground, the important individuals in the troop are getting a feel for what kind of day it is going to be, I like to think that is when this primitive consciousness begins to congeal.

But what if they spend the night right next to another troop?

Just such a thing has happened in the forest a small number of times. On this particular day, the morning opened with restlessness. We weren’t quite sure what was going down at this point, but the truth quickly became apparent. When the main troop rushed down from the sleeping site and immediately headed for the feeding site, and the forest erupted into wahoos and screams, I headed up the hill to investigate.

I found an odd collection of baboons holding the frontier. There were 4 of them: Punzle, Cassandra, Danny, and Kirby. Punzle is well known to us, but none of the others have come up yet.

Kirby is no one too special. He’s an older juvenile, on the verge of being sub-adult. He’s recognizable by torn up ears, and long black side hairs on his head, which he probably inherited from one of the matrilines. He’s not the friendliest of young males, but few of them are at that age. He’s smack in his ‘tween years, where the excitability and extroversion of youth are giving way to the aggressiveness and seriousness of maturity. Right in the middle, their behavior is frequently dominated by extroversion and aggressiveness; the worst of both worlds.

Cassandra and Danny are both special baboons to me. Cassie isn’t particularly remarkable on the surface: she’s a mid-to-low ranking baboon, not too young, or sociable. But she’s a good mother, she doesn’t let her babies get themselves killed. She is also the first baboon female I nailed the identification for. She’s got the black hairs I mentioned earlier, and these highly distinctive half-moon patches on her callosities. Well, I can reliably see them, anyway.

Danny is a young male, a legitimate sub-adult. He’s also a surprisingly nice guy. He doesn’t let himself get pushed around by any but the likes of Aaron and Damian, but he’s not abusive to the females, either. Or us researchers. He’s young, but he looks like he’ll turn into a strong alpha one day, who’s liable to be as benevolent as a male can get.

These four stood there, at the far edge of the group, and alone, appeared to push the entirety of the Tim Curry group up the hill, and out of the sleeping site. The remainder of the main troop continued down hill, across the valley, toward the sleeping site. The four did not back down and rejoin their troop until a couple hundred meters had been allowed to open between the centers of the two groups.

It was not surprising to see Danny and Kirby at the edge. They’re young males and eventually looking to disperse to another troop where they can copulate with some more diverse females. They want to know as much as possible about what other troops are in the area. The strangest part was the lack of other young males at the edge.

The two females were the true oddity, however. I can’t think of reason why Cassie would like to risk harm; she doesn’t have a posse to back her up. Punzle does, in theory, but as the number 3 female, it surprising she wasn’t herded to safety by Aaron. The incident was a mess, and did not last very long, but the major outstanding question has remained: why were there so many females at the periphery, and so few young males?

Returning to where we began, when does this troop mind decision begin to form? The baboons are almost certainly aware of the presence of Tim Curry & Co. when they sit back to rest for the night. Could Tim Curry have arrived later at night after the main troop has nodded off? Considering all the experiments that have been done to show the impressive perception and awareness of a baboon troop, I could hardly allow myself to believe that an entire dysfunctional troop of baboons could just slip under the main troop’s radar.

I can sometimes tell, when I find the baboons arriving late to a sleeping site, that something is up. If there’s an excessive amount of screaming, barking, and wahooing, it will often indicate something is amiss. If I’m having a really outstanding evening, I’ll be able to recognize at least 5 distinct wahoos, which is a strong indicator that there’s more than one troop present, since the main troop only has 4 males capable of producing a solid wahoo. Still, that late in the evening, one seldom has enough light to distinguish baboons well enough to spot someone who is out of place.

So I have my hunches, which are more often correct than not. The baboons, on the other hand, must know. Then when does the decision take place? As Danny nods off into light sleep, is he thinking about how the first thing he’s going to do tomorrow is chase those crazy Tim Curry baboons out of the sleeping site? Did Aaron not think about his plan the next day, and thus allow Punzle to slip past his notice? Did Anna have some plan in mind overnight? Was it just the luck of the draw for her, and she wound up sleeping in a tree right by where Tim Curry slept?

All of these questions, and more, will not be answered next week on this blog, but I did find an excellent complementary story which happens not to shed light on anything.

Monday, March 14

Human Ethology: On Social Networking

I dislike the Facebook (tFB) - that's no secret. One reason is because of this fascinating article about demographics of populations who use different social networking sites. But the real reason is because I'm not on board with the "social networking is the future (of innovation/interaction/huuurgle/etc )" crew is that I just happen to think that its unproductive and unhealthy. Don't get me wrong, I'm from the Internet, and I even am willing to agree that moderate levels of internet browsing helps with work. Hell, I won't even deny that maybe tFB is the future. But that doesn't mean I'm going to say its a good thing. Have a look back at my previous Human Ethology writings: in short tFB isn't friendly with our ethology. Sucks, I know.

The reason I bring this up is because a short while ago, I was linked to an article about how tFB is bad news for people's self-esteem. Aha! I thought to myself, Now that's what to see, meaning either my hunches are getting confirmed, or tFB is not only meritless, but a legitimately negative insitution!

Then I was reading one of my blogs the other day, and was surprised to find myself reading an article which spoke of a recently published paper which indicated that tFB improves one's self-esteem. Now this provides a bit of a conundrum worth investigation, I thought.

Well, let's first have a gander at the more recent of the two. This "mirror, mirror" article is obviously about self-esteem derived from looking at images of one's self. The real-life test is, incredibly enough, having subjects look at themselves in a mirror. Okay. And on theFaceBook? Looking at your own profile.

So the results imply that one gains more self-esteem looking at one's own self-generated profile than ones "physical" profile. This immediately comes back to the dichotomy of stated versus revealed preference. A person's tFB profile is stated information, it is written by the individual according to their choices and beliefs. A mirror reflection is revealing information, it tells no lies, unless one is wearing makeup.

That's all well and good, but the authors, or at very least, the press, would argue that these findings suggest that tFB use in general is better for one's self-esteem than living in the real-world.

Slight problem: I may not be an average tFB user (in fact I hope that I am not), but I don't spend a lot of time looking at my profile. Particularly under the newest layout, its awfully difficult for anyone to easily see the complete contents of one's profile. What's allegedly the best part about tFB, and certainly what takes up most people's time, are the status updates, photos, quizzes, games, etc. Dealing with other people is what takes up the majority of time spent on tFB.

Which is where the original paper comes back into play. Except not as much as you would think. The TIME article, from which I was lead to the scholarly paper, strongly implied that people were more miserable on tFB.
Yet,the actual overview of the paper tells a different tale:
"In a series of five experiments, the study— which was inspired by the Facebook envy experience though does not explicitly address it— identified several intersecting psychological factors that underlie the grass-is-greener phenomenon. The first two experiments showed that people consistently underestimate how often other people have negative emotions, while overestimating how often they have positive ones."
Emphasis mine. Well then.

Blogger seldom angers me in a substantial way, but when it deletes my whole post for reasons I do not comprehend and refuses to let me undo, I get mad. And delayed. Everything should have a built in revisioning system.

By the time I realized what was going on while I was reading the articles and writing this post the first time around, it was "too late." There's not more to be said on the relevance of these two articles. "Mirror, Mirror" is limited by its odd assumption about the importance of profile information and viewing, and "Misery," while a solid paper in its own right, doesn't actually gather any evidence directly related to tFB activities.

The two can hardly be compared under the circumstances. Thus, the moral remaining with us: the press is a difficult creature to interact with.
Read the actual papers, and if you can't do that, at least real the abstracts. I skim a lot of papers, read quite few, since so many pass across my desk, but I will always read the abstracts. From the abstract of "Misery":
"Taken together, these studies suggest that people may think they are more alone in their emotional difficulties than they really are."
That's quite a finding, regardless of not being directly tied to tFB. Ehh, it didn't deserve the attention anyway.

Wednesday, March 2


Last time I promised that I would elaborate on the situation I presented last time, namely, Gertrude and Hilda. To my trained but imperfect human eyes the two look like sisters. As an exercise, let's assume that they are. But if they are, how and why do they appear to differ so greatly in rank?

A few things first. If the two are sisters, they are almost certainly not full sisters, they probably only share one parent. This I shall assume, as males generally do not maintain their rank long enough for a single copulatory pair to make it through two pregnancies. This would also require Gertie and Hilda be born one after the other; there are just too many unlikely aspects to such a setup. Thus we'll assume they shared only one parents, but which parent will prove to be an interesting question.

Sharing a mother between the two sisters is problematic. If this were to be the case, the mother would need to be quite highly ranked, to explain Hilda's own rank. Gertrude's low rank is less of a problem this way - female's can lose a great deal of rank much more easily than they can gain rank. So under this scenario, how does Gertie lose all of her ranks?

Alright, we don't really know enough about Gertrude's rank to say where she's fallen to. Maybe she never really collapsed, maybe she just got super old and couldn't protect herself, or developed some disease which makes her weak. Even though males are the sex whose rank is primarily based on pure strength, and females can rely on the cushion of their matriline, they still need to be able to protect themselves. in truth, Gertie is very seldom bothered by anyone because she stays out of the way and is no longer sexually receptive. In theory she could still hold a high rank, but just doesn't make use of it.

What if they shared the same father? Well, an alpha male is likely to mate with the top rank females, and create progeny of high rank, like Hilda. However, males are never long in the alpha spot. An up and coming male may have joined a troop and impregnated a mid-to-low rank female, and several years later, having risen to alpha status, impregnated a high ranking female who in turn gave birth to Hilda.

On the other hand, a low ranking, but clever male may have regularly mated with low ranked females, but slipped in a few sneaky, extra-pair copulations with a high ranking one, and one such copulation might happened to have yielded a successfully pregnancy. This isn't a terribly likely option, but either scenario would give us Gertrude and Hilda as they are today.

So there you have it, a wealth of different ethologically sound (I swear) explanations for how two old sister baboons ended up in such different places in the autumn of their lives.