New Study: Do Baboons Recognize Gender Equality?

Written by Mike Mcpherson
Updated: December 26, 2021
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As humanity’s closest cousins in the animal kingdom, primates offer a fascinating look at complex social behavior in the wild. With emotional and intellectual faculties that in many ways mirror human beings, the various primate species invite comparisons between their social structures and our own. A newly released study conducted by the German Primate Center hints at another similarity. After observing Guinea baboons in Senegal over a two year period, researchers uncovered a certain degree of gender equality in leadership. Males and females alike successfully initiated group travel.

Guinea Baboons VS Hamadryas Baboons

Of the six baboon species in Africa, four — Chacma, Kinda, olive, and yellow baboons — organize into simple, uni-level societies. In other words, their groups contain no smaller subgroups. The remaining two, Guinea and hamadryas baboons, operate in multi-level societies. The difference between the ways in which these two species construct their roving societies illustrates their distinct treatment of the sexes.

Hamadryas baboons, on the one hand, form single male units, containing the one male and a handful of females who mate exclusively with him. Then, these units combine to form clans, which in turn unite as bands. Throughout these bands, male baboons retain their multiple female mates and generally refuse to mix with other males. Their relationships are marked by competition.

Guinea baboons, on the other hand, are considerably more fluid in their social structure. While they still form similar one male units, the females associated with a given male switch partners as they see fit. They may remain with a male partner for periods as short as a few weeks or as long as many years. Likewise, this social freedom extends to the males, who develop close bonds rather than rivalries between one another.

Hamadryas baboon bands follow only male leaders. When it’s time to move on from one area to another, only a male hamadryas baboon will initiate that mobilization. In contrast, three of the uni-level baboon species, chacma, olive, and yellow baboons, will follow leaders of either sex. Given the more open society of Guinea baboons, researchers wondered whether gender played a role or not. Would they operate like the other multi-level species, or adopt gender equality in their roaming habits?

Graduate student Davide Montanari led researchers in the study, conducted from the German Primate Center’s Simenti facility. Over the course of their research, they observed 121 group departures, as well as 100 journeys. In their analysis, they looked for how factors like sex, age, and reproductive status affected leadership. Their findings revealed another striking difference between Guinea and hamadryas baboons.

Gender Equality Among Guinea Baboons

“Social organization alone does not determine who leads the group,” said German Primate Center’s head of Cognitive Ethology Laboratory, Julia Fischer. Despite sharing similar organizing principles in their societies, “In Guinea baboons, females have a high degree of social and physical freedom and are less subordinate to males than in hamadryas baboons,” Fischer observed.

While males still initiated the majority of group movements, at 60 percent, females initiated travel 36 percent of the time. Of the total number of initiated mobilizations, researchers found the group followed 80 percent of the time, regardless of the leader’s sex. Once in motion, both females and males continued leading the group. Furthermore, the trailing group’s middle and rear featured an even mix of male and female baboons, indicating no gender-based hierarchy throughout the group.

However, single males without accompanying units often traveled faster, ahead of the rest. Units remained in close proximity during travel, bound by their tight knit relationships.

Scant Guinea Baboon Research 

Among the six baboon species, Guinea baboons are the least studied. Prior to the release of this study, it was assumed only males dictated group movements. In contrast to hamadryas baboons, in which males rally their females prior to travel, Guinea males were thought to be less aggressive. They had been observed more passively leading their group by example. While this remains true, Montanari’s research reveals females also engage in this leadership behavior.

Similarly, another study released in 2011 changed perceptions of Guinea baboon society. It broke from conventional assumptions about baboon social structures, falling into either uni-level or multi-level groups. Fluidity among Guinea baboons led to formations of some all male units, single bachelor male units, and units of multiple males and females. While largely a multi-level species, these findings suggested a more complex understanding of Guinea baboon socialization.

These fascinating creatures deserve greater scrutiny, but face environmental competition that will inhibit our ability to study them. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists them as Near Threatened. While adaptable, their range stretches over a limited territory in Western Africa where agriculture imposes upon their habitat. Farmers consider them a nuisance, as they feed on crops. Hunters dwindle their numbers. However, the Niokolo-Koba National Park offers a safe refuge where a considerable population thrives and other conservation efforts ensure their survival.

The Guinea baboon, smallest of the six baboon species, will hopefully be around for a long time, providing researchers a beguiling subject to unravel with subsequent studies.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Florence Bond - Copyright A-Z Animals / Original


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FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What other species feature female leaders?

Many animal species follow matriarchs. For example, older female orcas retain knowledge of salmon hotspots, leading their pod to feeding waters. Likewise, elephants are led by females to resource-rich feeding grounds. In both cases, females stand as leaders as opposed to patriarchal animals, like baboons. Hyenas also follow their mothers. Lactating females usually lead their clan to feed. While males hunt, females are larger, hold the power to form alliances with other clans, and lead the battle charge when at war.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Nature, Available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-01356-6
  2. New England Primate Conservancy, Available here: https://www.neprimateconservancy.org/guinea-baboon.html
  3. NCBI, Available here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3083506/
  4. BBC, Available here: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20180925-with-females-in-charge-bonobo-society-is-more-chilled-out