Knife, fork and baboon: dining etiquette in the Namib Desert
Monday 24 August 2009
For humans, dining can be a minefield of social dos and don’ts - and the same is true for wild foraging baboons in the Namib Desert.
ZSL scientist Andrew King observed that strict foraging protocols apply for these wild animals in this dry, desert environment.
When foraging in a group, baboons can use one of two tactics to find food. They can use the ‘producer tactic’ (search for, and discover, their own food patch), or the ‘scrounger tactic’ (join group-mates that have already found a food source).
Whilst hard-working 'producer' baboons are constantly on the lookout for new sources of food, lazy neighbouring 'scroungers' take the easy option of just turning up when dinner is ready. However this scrounging doesn’t go unnoticed and tension can follow.
Andrew, of ZSL’s Institute of Zoology and the University of Cambridge, and his team followed two troops of baboons from dawn till dusk during two seven-month-long field seasons in Namibia. His aim was to try to understand how these primates strike a balance between producer and scrounger behaviours.
“We wanted to see what kind of factors influence the foraging decisions of baboons - when they choose to find their own food, or scrounge from fellow troop members,” says King.
He observed that baboons followed ‘scrounging protocol’, as previous theoretical and experimental work predicted.
Social etiquette, baboon style
If a producer baboon discovered a food patch only big enough for itself, then others stayed away. However if the patch was large, scroungers were quick to move in.
“Males are dominant in the troop and generally don't care who discovered the food patch - they'll just join in and eat,” says King.
“Females only scrounge in patches occupied by close friends.” This, King explains, is because they are fearful of repercussions if they don't have a close relationship with the producer baboon.
King suspects that, along with social factors, reproductive factors may also play a role in the scrounging rules that the baboons adopt, adding: “males tend to follow females from patch to patch if they are fertile.”
King believes this is because males want closely observe their mates in order to stop any rivals approaching.
Pregnant females and mothers with small babies were observed following the male who was the most likely father of the baby. It appears that these females were permitted to scrounge since the males would be contributing to the welfare of their offspring.
The findings, recently published in Behavioral Ecology, described the first detailed observations of producer-scrounger behaviour in a wild primate.