Scientists have discovered a group of surprisingly peaceful baboons.
Normally, violence is common among adult male baboons belonging to the same troop. The big primates regularly get into bloody fights over food and females. Males at the top of the pecking order viciously bully those at the bottom. They sometimes even attack female baboons.
Female olive baboons, such as this mother, may prod males entering a troop to tone down their normally violent behavior.
The peaceful olive baboons, called Forest Troop, live in an animal reserve in Kenya. Researchers from Stanford University have been studying them since 1978. Back then, the troop’s males were typically aggressive and violent.
In 1982, the most aggressive animals started eating out of a garbage dump at a tourist lodge. The next year, infected meat in the pit killed these members of the troop. The laid-back males lived on.
Over the years, the group became more and more peaceful. Even after high-ranking males from other groups joined the Forest Troop, they spent less time fighting for power than those belonging to a nearby troop. They left weak males alone and never attacked females. They were nicer to each other.
The researchers suggest that Forest Troop’s females are keeping the males under control. Grooming is an especially popular activity among males and females. In the peaceful troop, females groom males new to the group as soon as 3 weeks after they arrive instead of waiting as long as 12 weeks.
So, the female baboons behave in ways that seem to get males to be tolerant and cooperative. In effect, the customs of a baboon society appear to determine whether certain kinds of behavior are OK. It’s the first known example of the cultural transmission of social attitudes by primates other than people.
Are only certain baboons attracted to the placid lifestyle offered by Forest Troop? Or will any male, no matter how violent to start with, adapt to the new society? More research is needed to find out if all adult male baboons have the potential to become peaceful baboons.