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Baboon Cliques Limit Learning Among the Group

May 13, 2015 12:33 PM EDT
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It seems that even baboons form their own cliques, but new research shows that this can limit learning among the group.

According to new findings published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, chacma baboons within a troop spend more of their time with baboons that have similar characteristics to themselves - a phenomenon known as homophily, or "love of the same." For example, these animals tend to associate with those of a similar age, dominance rank, and even personality type such as boldness.

"Within these big troop networks over time social preferences are generally dictated by age, rank, personality and so on," first author Dr. Alecia Carter explained in a statement. "This happens in humans all the time; we hang out with people who have the same income, religion, education etc. Essentially, it's the same in baboons."

But a team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge finds that this may act as a barrier to the transfer of new social information to the wider troop.

That's because the information "generators" of the group - those that solve new foraging problems - are the younger, bolder baboons. And if they hang out with similar baboons, then the information will stay with only them, thus decreasing the likelihood that new knowledge will spread to others who are less bold.

To observe these behavior patterns, research teams tracked the same two baboon troops from dawn until dusk across Namibia's Tsaobis Nature Park over several months each year, between 2009-2014. In order to pick out the boldest of baboons, they planted unfamiliar foods - like hard-boiled eggs and dyed red or green bread - on paths frequented by the troops. The research team then measured the time spent on investigating the new foodstuff, and whether they ate it, to determine a scale of boldness for members of the baboon troops.

"Our analysis is the first to suggest that bolder and shyer baboons are more likely to associate with others that share this personality trait," said Dr. Guy Cowlishaw from the Zoological Society of London, senior author of the study. "Previous studies in other animals - from chimps to guppies - suggests that time spent in the company of those with similar personalities could promote cooperation among individuals.

"Why baboons should demonstrate homophily for boldness is unclear," he added, "but it could be a heritable trait, and the patterns we're seeing reflect family associations."

More research needs to be done to get to the bottom of this, but it seems for now that the bolder baboons will remain the brains behind the operation, keeping any valuable information to themselves.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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