Friday, June 24

Day Off

Another morning with the baboons began with two unexpected surprises. We'd had some luck scouting for all the troops the previous evening, but Tim Curry and his cohort could not be located, which happens all the time with such a small group.

As soon as we joined the main troop at dawn, I felt that something was off. The females were all agitated, and began moving quickly when they came down from the trees, despite being at a site where they usually spend some leisure time in the mornings. I circled the perimeter of the troop, looking for signs of trouble, namely the other baboon troop of Mister Timothy Curry. Sure enough, I saw Tim sitting a ways off from the troop, with his "prize" female, Terpsichore.
let's do the time warp
Terpsichore is a special kind of female. I wasn't ever one of the researchers who was into the concept of "baboon beauty," but Terp is an objectively homely baboon. Her flaws do not match the hanging jaw and breasts of Punzle, from the main troop; Terp's are more the sort of imperfections that come with old age, which makes her akin to Hilda. Terp and Hilda have very similar faces, too, I unfortunately do not have decent pictures of Terp.

Comparing Hilda and Terp isn't very effective beyond the realm of human adjudications of baboon attractiveness. Hilda is a reasonably sized female, and ranked quite high among the main troop. Terpsichore is one the largest baboons I have encountered in person, and is dead last in the local hierarchy. Much theorizing is aimed at understanding how she managed to become so huge with such poor social standing.

As Rainer would say, "no one will so much as touch her with a stick, except for Timmy." Timmy doesn't get much play these days, and all of the other females in the troop are either too stuck up or crazy (seriously, some of these females do some bizarre stuff and appear to have no self-respect for their own positions in the hierarchy), so Terp is the only one left for Tim to copulate with. And between Cyrus and Xerxes, all the females with some kind of rank are spoken for.

I digress, but it is important to emphasize how odd both Tim and Terp are. Tim and Terp idled around on the periphery of the group all morning. When the rest of the group quickly made tracks out of the sleeping site, which was almost certainly to avoid the Curries, the pair of outsiders followed.

The troop was in a state of high tension althroughout. Under many circumstances, the juveniles of the troop would relish the opportunity to spar with some new faces, but a weird old man and his mistress are not nearly as fun. Aaron took out his anger on some of the females, with Bertrand and Chester also showing palpable agitation.

Yet Tim simply would not leave. I am missing the part of the story where he wound up separated from his own troop with Terp. Perhaps he fought with Xerxes torwards the end of the previous day, and when the fight took him far from his troop, he decided to stay there overnight. That doesn't explain Terp's presence at all, though. She likes him, but she shouldn't need his protection that badly.

Speculation: clearly my favorite part about baboon blogging. Around noon, Tim and Terp finally got a clue and slowly separated form the group, returning to Tim Curry's troop. What was that clue?

Let's make a little thought experiment out of this. Throughout the day, one could hear male wahoo calls from troop members and from other baboons aways off in the forest. At some point, Tim must have recognized the wahoos of Xerxes and Cyrus, and after hearing enough of them, he could determine location, and possibly heading.

If Tim wants to get back to his troop with Terp, how would a baboon go about doing such a thing? I have a feeling that Timmy's feeble old mind may not have been up to human standards on pathfinding; my previous experience strongly suggests this. If the body of the main troop, which covers quite a sector when in a mobile foraging formation, blocked Tim's path back to his troop, he probably wouldn't be intelligent enough to follow a wide berth around the whole large troop in order to return to his own.

If Tim attempted to push through the group to his troop, he could not do so quickly and without consequence with Terp at his side. Tim might have just been an asshole and left her to fend for herself, but it turns out he didn't, for whatever reason. She wasn't at peak swell, but on the other hand, I don't follow them as much, so my knowledge of their cycles is not so strong.

Were Tim and Terp to slowly move toward his troop with the large main group in his path, the whole group would have just moved away from him, directly along his intended path, maintaining the barricade between Tim and his troop. There wouldn't have been any intentionality to this motion by Aaron and his troop, but after several hours of random walk (and being nudged by Tim) by the main troop and the TC troop, Tim and Terp could have awkwardly skirted around the main troop (displacing them further, this time in a constructive direction), and trekked back to their companions, who no doubt greeted them with repugnance. This is what transpired, at very least.
So ended Tim Curry's day off. It wasn't even a full day, to be honest, Rainer passed me reports a couple of hours after I last saw Tim, informing me that he and his female had safely returned to his eponymous troop. I didn't think to ask how the two missing baboons were welcomed on their return. Somehow, I have a feeling that Timmy gets himself lost in harmless places pretty often, and it stands to reason that the younger generation has written him off. Despite all his flaws, he has no difficultly in making sure he's taken care of by the end of the day.

Friday, June 10

Don't personify your monkeys

I apologize in advance, this is not going to be a pretty one.

Monkey "witch" burned by South African township mob

Animal welfare workers were contacted by a Kagiso resident traumatized by the incident, in which a vervet monkey was beaten, pelted with stones, shot at and burned to death.

I bring attention to this because it is bad news all-around, from the sociopathic behavior of a few people, to the racist comments made in response. The description is brief, but I would be willing to wager it was a bad kernel of a few unsavory individuals who carried out this whole thing.

In retrospect, it seems I've been reading a lot of depressing books lately, the tone of which is slipping into my writing. This endless sinus infection isn't helping matters either. See above for apology.

However, what really set me to writing was a memory brought to the surface by this article. I was once told a story by one of the white women who lived right at the forests edge, almost directly in the path of one of the troop's usual routes. One day she walked out of her house and found herself surrounded by the troop, which was leisurely passing through the yard. They can sneak up on you pretty quickly if you don't know what to look for.

In her surprise, she stumbled, and almost fell. When her bearings returned, she thought the baboons were laughing at her.

Baboons do not laugh.

Baboons will make a sound that we have onapatomeiacally dubbed a "kek." Its not as common as a grunt or a bark, but probably on par with a wahoo, at least in this population of baboons. The females use it in social interactions, it is generally issued by a female in the presence of a higher ranking female, as a way of reducing tension. The details are vague to me, and as far as I know, this is a behavior which has been studied quite little.

Cheney and Seyfarth are the go to people for modern baboon research, moreso even in Chacmas, moreso further in anything to do with vocalizations, particularly those of the females. Pretty much everything in the literature deals with "grunts," unfortunately, which means that a Kek is either being classified as a grunt, or this behavior has actually been too difficult to research.

One could reasonably argue that the Kek is ethologically derived from a grunt. In a process which is well known through Konrad Lorenz' illustration of dog behaviors, pictured below.
Along the left column, Lorenz has drawn the transition of a dog's face from calm to fearful. Along the top, he transitions to aggressive. The other pictures are combinations of the facial expressions at various stages, culminating in the lower right picture, which depicts full on fear and aggression in concert.

The Kek could be the result of a comparable combination. The female might have adopted a grimace of fear, distorting her cheeks and and tightening her facial muscles. While trying to grunt to another baboon in an affiliative manner, the twisting and tightening of muscles could distort the sound of the call, producing a Kek. If this is what is happening, ought we still to call this a "grunt"? If a human observer can distinguish between the two, then a baboon can unquestionably discern a difference in meaning as well.

To make an overly ruminative explanation short, the Kek sounds a bit like a mean spirited laugh, and regardless of what a Kek really means to a baboon, it definitely is not a form of laughter. This story is one of coincidence, but in light of what happened to that vervet, I must be thankful that this encounter involved an enlightened Capetonian, and that baboons are way bigger and scarier than vervets.

There is a sad lack of publicly available baboon sounds that one can find on the web. However, I did find this. There are no Kek'ing sounds included, and some files are mislabeled, but they are all sounds one would hear from a baboon. Have a look if you've got the urge. I'll keep looking for Kek sounds; I may yet be able to dig a few up.