In the World of Baboons, Nice Girls Finish First
November 09, 2012
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By Dr. Becker
Did you know that like humans, baboons with BFFs are healthier and live longer than baboons without strong connections to others of their species?
And now, new research suggests the quality of a baboon’s social circle has more to do with personality than status. It seems among baboons, being nice is a benefit!
According to researcher Robert Seyfarth of the University of Pennsylvania:
“By being a nice baboon, you increase the likelihood of having strong social bonds, which in turn translates to a better chance of passing on your genes.”
Seyfarth believes his study, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, points to a link between personality characteristics, social skills and reproductive success in baboons.
Researchers Studied 45 Female Baboons for 7 Years
In the world of baboons, interestingly, females inherit their hierarchical rank from their mothers. And their rank establishes their access to food and mates. But the researchers discovered that high status and a bigger network of relatives doesn’t automatically lead to superior fitness and the ability to successfully produce offspring.
According to Seyfarth:
“… dominance rank is not as good a predictor of reproductive outcomes as a close network of social relationships and stable relationships over time. So our question became 'What predicts having a strong network?'"
Seyfarth and his team studied 45 female baboons in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana for seven years. They paid particular attention to each female’s tendency to be either friendly or aggressive. The researchers measured the animals’ stress levels by testing their feces for specific hormones, and they tracked how long the baboons and their children lived.
Baboons Fell into One of Three Groups: “Nice” … “Aloof” … or “Loner”
Based on behavioral trends the females displayed, they were categorized as either “nice,” “aloof” or “loner.”
The researchers observed that nice baboons were sociable to everyone regardless of rank. They grunted to lower-ranking peers to let them know they meant them no harm. And they formed strong attachments to long-term grooming partners.
The aloof females also had long-term grooming partners, but their connections were not as strong. They were more aggressive, and grunted primarily in the presence of higher-ranking females.
Both the nice and aloof females enjoyed the good health and reproductive advantages that accompany strong social bonds.
By contrast, the loner female baboons were not particularly friendly and did not forge strong social connections. They changed grooming partners frequently and only grunted in recognition of higher-ranking females. This group had higher stress levels than the other two groups, lower offspring survival rates, and shorter lifespans.
A question the study didn’t answer: “If Loners are often the victims of circumstances, what skills or motivation allow some individuals to overcome these circumstances while others do not?" the researchers asked.