Thursday, May 9

Ruminations on a conversation between primatologists

 A couple years back I had the privilege to hear Robert Sapolsky speak. It was a detailed talk, but given how much I know about his research already, there wasn't a huge amount of new information for me to learn. However, I did pick up on something he only briefly mentioned, and eagerly looked forward to asking him about it after the talk. I said to him:
"The baboons I've seen in the bush are very thin and spend almost all day every day foraging, so they have little time to engage in social interaction except mornings and evenings. You said that your olive baboons have the entire day to socialize; how is this possible?"
Dr. Sapolsky explained that the savanna his baboons live on is a paradise, ripe with easy to find food and moisture. Of course, other baboons could and do live under different conditions. But his baboons were lucky, and their fortune was certainly part of what made them such a great study group.

I haven't thought about this conversation much recently. That is, until I encountered a recent article in National Geographic. In this article, the author asked many of the same questions that came to mind when I heard Sapolsky speak: 'what on earth do these baboons feed on?…and where do they go to drink and sleep?'

Olive baboons are widely spread species in Africa, and while they are known to inhabit arid regions, the Chalbi Desert (the area discussed in this article) is dryer than most other such regions. I am most familiar with baboons sleeping in trees, but in wilder areas where there are more predators (notably leopards), high, steep cliffs are baboons' favored sleeping grounds.

I'm not sure that the authors of the Nat Geo article knew all of this (or much of any of it), but they may have found all the answers they needed, at least for this group of baboons. The troop in question spent a lot of time around doum palm trees, which provide water rich fruit, and shade. Apparently these baboons spend a great deal of the daytime in the doum palms' dense shade. I've seen baboons rest under cover during the heat of the day, but never to the extent found by the authors, in the Chalbi Desert.

These baboons don't live like Sapolsky's monkeys, that is for sure. Their environment does not seem to be able to sustain a large population, but it does seem to be able to support a small one consistently. All this speaks for the remarkable flexibility of baboons. They, like many other species of monkeys; chimpanzees and of course humans, can adapt themselves to survive (and possibly even thrive) in a myriad of different environments. They may not live the most healthy lives, but they will survive to reproduce, and keeps their genes alive.

Oh, and if you were wondering about the truth of Sapolsky story, well have a look at this.
The girl (okay, friend) waiting with me to talk to Sapolsky thought it was a really clever idea that I brought a book for him to sign
Okay, you probably weren't doubting me, but I'm allowed to be boastful on occasion.

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