For Baboons What Matters Is Who You Know


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

968 For Baboons What Matters Is Who You Know
Dr. Alecia Carter says the baby baboon was frustrated at being repeatedly rebuffed from getting into the center of the huddle. However, one day it may learn there is a price to pay for such centrality. Alecia Carter

Baboons troops have complex social dynamics.

A study of their interconnections found a major benefit for high-status baboons engaging with others is getting to steal food. The benefits for the lower status baboons are less clear.


Dr. Alecia Carter of Cambridge University specializes in studying animal social networks. In recent years, she has been tracking the baboons of Tsaobis Park, Namibia. Her observations on how baboons learn from each other have been published in eLife. As one of the more successful primate species, Chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) may tell us something about the ways we learned to communicate and share knowledge, although Carter's findings may not always be pleasant to hear.

Carter distributed corn, a baboon favorite, in spots around where troops congregated. She took great care to ensure that the baboons did not see her doing so, and therefore associate her with food. Consequently, individuals would stumble on the food somewhat randomly.

“I wasn't interested in who discovered the patch,” Carter told IFLScience, “but who learned about the patch from the discoverer.” Baboons, she adds are “terribly selfish” and rather than sharing food like chimpanzees or many other social animals, will try to hide discoveries from each other.

This culture of secrecy invites a response and Carter says baboons are “good at paying attention.” One of her key discoveries was that “the more social individuals learn more about what the others have found.” So if a baboon is being nice to you there is a high chance it just wants to let you do the foraging and then move in on what you find.


Carter tracked the baboons' connections with frequent measurements of their spatial relations. Only baboons within the 10 meter (33 feet) line were counted as having a connection. The black arrow shows the nearest neighbor. Carter et al. Elife

When other baboons catch on to a discovery the highest status individual, which in the baboon-world usually means an adult male, gets to eat their fill. Others only gain maximum benefit from making a discovery if it is so small, for example a single tasty insect, that they can consume it before anyone else works out what they have.

Unsurprisingly, low ranked troop members spend more time foraging to make up for the food that is taken away from them.

Carter mapped the baboon social network with the time individuals spent close to each other, and confirmed it with measures such as time spent grooming or being groomed. She found being highly social provides no benefit food-wise for low-ranked individuals, since while they often discover others' treasure troves, they don't get to enjoy them, although she says juvenile males sometimes sit and watch others eat, moving in for scraps the dominant individual missed. Unexpectedly, Carter found that male baboons use socially acquired information more than females.


Carter previously reported that baboons are usually most social with others of similar rank and personality, which may cut down on the dangers of low-ranked individuals being gazumped, but she says she has plenty more analysis to do to confirm whether cliques enhance knowledge transmission.

The findings suggest possible explanations for questions other researchers have asked, such as what benefits males get from non-sexual “friendships,” where they protect their “friends'” offspring from infanticide. 


  • tag
  • baboons,

  • social networks,

  • status hierachies