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For baboons, survival of the nicest

Friendlier females have more stable relationships and live longer, study says

ScienceNOWOctober 21, 2012 

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CAPETOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 3 : A mother holds her baby protected in the bush July 3, 2010 in Capetown, South Africa. Urbanization is believed to be the main reason for the loss of the natural baboon habitat and increasing conflict between baboons and humans. Baboons are seen as a menace while they forage for food in an urban environment breaking into restaurants, garbage cans, where ever food is visible. While many are busy chasing the primates away from their homes and businesses, Baboon Matters, a non-governmental organization attempts to educate and protect baboons to ensure their long-term future on the Cape peninsula. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

PAULA BRONSTEIN — Getty Images

Baboons, like people, really do get by with a little help from their friends.

Humans with strong social ties live longer, healthier lives, whereas hostility and “loner” tendencies can set the stage for disease and early death.

In animals, too, strong social networks contribute to longer lives and healthier offspring – and now it seems that personality may be just as big a factor in other primates’ longevity status.

A new study found that female baboons that had the most stable relationships with other females weren’t always the highest up in the dominance hierarchy or the ones with close kin around – but they were the nicest.

Primatologist Dorothy Cheney of the University of Pennsylvania has studied wild baboons at the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana for almost 20 years. Besides providing detailed, long-term observations of behavior in several generations of baboons, the research has yielded a wealth of biological and genetic information.

In previous research, Cheney and co-workers showed that females lived longer, had lower stress hormone levels, and had more surviving offspring when they had close, long-lasting relationships with other females (characterized chiefly by spending time together and grooming).

Although dominance rank was significant for male baboons – alpha male baboons may live longer than lower-ranking males – this wasn’t true for the females. Nor was an abundance of kin the key to longevity. Not all of the longer-lived, less-stressed females had large families.

To find out more about how female baboons forge bonds, Cheney and co-authors focused on detailed records of observations of 45 female baboons from 2001 to 2007. As a personality gauge, the researchers used specific behaviors, including how often the females were alone, how often they touched other females, how often they behaved aggressively, how often they were approached by others, and how often they grunted when approaching other females of various ranks. Among female baboons, grunting is a sign of good will, Cheney says.

Using these criteria, the researchers characterized the baboons as “nice,” “aloof” or “loner.” The team also tested the baboons for levels of stress hormones known as glucocorticoids.

The researchers took particular note of how often a female grunted at a lower-ranking female who didn’t have an infant.

“Female baboons are besotted with babies – they love to look at them and touch them,” Cheney says.

The researchers assumed that a female grunting at a lower-ranking animal with no baby had nothing to gain, and, therefore, must just be nice.

Females who scored high on the “nice” meter were friendly to all females, the researchers reported in September in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They were approached most often by other females and were most sociable in general and had stable relationships.

“Aloof” females, though less sociable, also had stable relationships. “Loner” animals’ partner relationships were less stable. They also had higher glucocorticoid levels than did the other two groups, suggesting that stress takes a greater toll on the less social.

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