How to Win Friends and Influence BaboonsRadiolab
- 1,004 views
- 31 Oct 2020
Baboon troops. We all know they’re hierarchical. There’s the big brutish alpha male who rules with a hairy iron fist, and then there’s everybody else. Which is what Meg Crofoot thought too, before she used GPS collars to track the movements of a troop of baboons for a whole month. What she and her team learned from this data gave them a whole new understanding of baboon troop dynamics, and, moment to moment, who really has the power.
This episode was reported and produced by Annie McEwen.
Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate.
Listener supported WNYC Studios. Hey, it's Chad. So an election is happening, I don't know if you heard and today and in a few days from now, we have two quick releases for you that sort of look at the big day from a variety of different angles.
And as you might have heard, we also have two new co-hosts here at Radiolab, Lulu Miller and lots of Nassr.
And they're going to take these two on their own. I will see you here. You talk to you on the other side. You're OK.
You're listening to Radiolab Radio from WNYC. Join audio. There you go. Hello. Aha. Hi, how are you doing? Hi, welcome back. Hey, I'm Latife Noster.
This is Radiolab and today we've got a story from our producer, Annie McEuen.
Okay, so you just came back from a vacation? Yes, I just came back from paternity leave. And this is really like I don't know anything about this story. I think you must have pitched this while I was gone.
And so this is great.
Like, this is literally the first thing I'm doing. So I like this. Nice. I'm really coming at this.
I don't know anything.
Well, OK, so so I guess when I pitched this I was just I don't know, it's just in this like I am ready to hear about someone other than humans. I'm just I'm just a little overwhelmed with humanity right now.
And so the story I have for you today is an animal story. OK, but of course. Except hello.
Hi. Hi, Meg. How are you? I'm doing well. How are you any to talk about animals? I need a human to help me.
I'm in my office. The door is closed. There's a sign not to knock. So so that human is Meg Crowfoot and I study the behavior of wild animals for a living.
She is a director at the Max Planck Institute and a prof at the University of Constance. It is an awesome job. He loves her job. I do.
And so the reason I was drawn to her is because her work with animals tackles this really deep question.
How groups reach consensus and achieve collective goals despite potentially conflicting interests of the individuals in the group. OK, that's a little hold on. Yeah, so simply like how does a group of animals, each of them with their own fears, their own needs, their own desires, how do they somehow, despite that, come together, make a decision and move forward? Right.
Yeah, this doesn't sound relevant to humans at all. This sounds actually entirely disconnected from anything going on in the world or this country, you know what I mean?
OK, this actually is an animal story, OK? Because when Meg was first starting to approach this, she was spending her time on a little island off the coast of Panama chasing capuchin monkeys around the jungle, watching the ways that we compete with each other, chasing each other out of this tree, trying to stand their ground on that rock, which she says was infuriating, you know, their house, cat sized black things just hidden behind leaves and branches and they're moving fast.
And she'd be sitting there like, OK, I see the monkey, OK, where to go?
But there's that same monkey, part of the first one go I you can't keep track of what everybody's doing.
Yeah, that seems impossible, right?
Totally. Until one day, Megg heard about this totally new way of approaching this problem.
I was sitting in this lecture hall in Panama City at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. There is a weekly seminar, this sort of afternoon of science.
She's sitting in this lecture hall and she's watching this Israeli scientist named Jonathan give a talk on his work tracking bats. He put a tiny GPS backpack on a bat, set it free, and was able to track its movements really, really closely, one GPS point per second.
And so you had this amazing detail of this bat, this little red dot on a map waking up and leaving its Rustum flying out across the Israeli desert. And you could see going up in the air and down in the air and following roads and following lights and then coming to this fruit tree in the middle of nowhere. And then eating in that fruit tree and then flying back. But the detail of it. And I remember sitting there in the seminar room and just being like, wow, imagine what you could know if you could put these kinds of instruments on an entire group of primates, not just follow one animal to a tree and back, but actually be able to see how a bunch of animals move at the same time and interact with each other in space.
It would give you a whole new way of seeing their world and seeing what they were doing and understanding how they were influencing each other's behavior. It really felt like sort of the same way I kind of imagined somebody staring for the first time through a microscope. I mean, rather than a microscope. A microscope. But having this whole new way of accessing the world, right. It was this moment that just felt so full of potential. That day, that lecture totally changed the course of what I was doing scientifically.
So she spent time gathering funding and choosing the perfect primate for this project.
The answer is baboons, huh? OK, we had you worked with baboons before in your eye. Never, never had ever seen a baboon. I guess I had seen a baboon at a bar one time. Yeah, exactly. You had a drink. It was natural.
Why would you take this animal to study out of all the animals that you could affect? Well, partly it was logistics.
Forest canopy cover disrupts the GPS signals and baboons live out in the open. There's a big enough to wear the heavy GPS collars the mag was planning to use. But also and I think maybe more significantly, baboons are a super well studied animal, like we already know a lot about them.
We already know a lot about how their troops work and they are notorious for sticking together like every day. These groups of 30 to 50 baboons, big little male, female, lower ranking, higher ranking, they move through the landscape together as a cohesive unit. And at some level, they must decide where to go together. And Meg's question was how? Right. So she gets on a plane and heads to Kenya.
You land in Nairobi and Nairobi is a big, bustling city. She and her team head out the Impala Research Center in this massive wildlife conservancy that's just filled with so many big animals.
They're driving past giraffes and hyenas and zebras and elephants.
Finally, you're out in this plateau that looks out at Mount Kenya. It's a really beautiful, beautiful landscape.
And it was here that she saw what she came for, the Bhutanese, all of baboons, troupes of them roaming the savanna, sort of sandy brown color. They have longish noses like a dog, a heavy brow. The males is they've got big, bushy manes all over the shoulders and back and head and big canines. They're about the size of a German shepherd. And the females are a lot smaller.
And when they're in heat, they get these like big pink glossy butts. It looks so uncomfortable.
Anyway, troops of these all of baboons are roaming the savanna.
And after a couple of weeks scoping them out, we eventually settle on a troop that slept pretty consistently in the set of trees along the river. So to make a long story short, Megan, her team set some traps beneath those trees and started catching and coloring these baboons.
It's like a dog collar or it's like, yeah, it's like a fancy computer dog collar on it. So they do this until they get 25 baboons collared. Yeah. And a twenty five out of how many?
It's about 40 animals and about twenty five ish. We're big enough to wear collars.
So a few days later altogether the collars look on and start collecting data one point per second.
And then we were collecting continuous accelerometer readings, each of their movements minutely tracked for one whole month and the collars pop off.
How many like data points is that 20 million GPS points and 30 times that many accelerometer points? Oh, my God. Yeah, just this sea of data.
So all of these numbers just start popping up on a computer screen. And at this point, it's just numbers. But what she's hoping those numbers can tell her is, again, how do these baboons and maybe they have differences of opinion or whatever, how do they make decisions about what to do or where to go?
And just from looking at the data, you could tell it was there everything I could have ever wanted to see? But we still haven't solved the problem. How do you understand who is influencing whom in all of this data? How do we understand how the movements of one baboon are impacting its group, which has a check check? And so that's where Damien and Ami came in. So I'm Damien free.
I am Ari Strandberg question. I am a human. Damien is also a human. One hundred percent. Anyway, Ari and Damien are two biologists at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.
Luckily, Ari and I work very well together.
We have very complementary skills and we enjoy working together because they spent the better part of two years trying to figure out how to read this data.
Among the very first things we ever did was to actually just create some visualizations of the data. So we've just had little dots, all these dots moving around representing the GPS coordinates of each animal, as if you were looking at it from above. And these were baboons walking through an empty landscape. They decided to color code them.
We had these dark blue dots that were adult males. The light blue was the subadult males. Red dots were adult females and light red was a subset of females. Sounds very pretty. Yeah.
So now they could see a little better what the baboons are actually doing in the morning. They're all kind of jumbled on top of each other, pinks and reds and blues. They're in their sleeping tree and they're just waking up. And the key thing to know about baboons, if you don't already, is that they're super hierarchical.
Males rank above females. There's an alpha male. Of course, the female ranking system is super complex.
Top ranking matulionis, second ranking Maximilien, third ranking Metroliner, fourth ranking Metroliner.
Well, so in these dots, what Megan R.E. and Damien thought they're going to see was a dark blue super alpha male DOTT after stretching and like rubbing his little dot face and, you know, flashing a single dot facing a little that thing alone, it was little dot neighbors for him, that dark blue alpha dot to come down from the tree and then be followed by the rest of that cloud of multicolored dots. Down, down, down they come.
And then that dark blue dot has a thought. We're going to go this way for breakfast. Follow me, everyone. The dark blue dot moves off the rest of the little multicolored dots follow. Right. And why not? That sounds like it would be efficient. Yeah, but no, that's not what they saw at all.
Our initial sets of hypotheses weren't supported in the data. What they saw was much more like a almost like an amoeba shaped sort of like blue pouch and maybe a couple of different colored dots that would move out that way. And then they would come back and then a few more dots would move over here and then come back before it finally then somehow moved off together. It just totally befuddled them. We're going to take a break, but when we come back, Meg and Damien and Ari are going to investigate this baboon's blob until they learn exactly how these baboons move forward, despite the fact that they all want to go in different directions.
Hello, this is Erin Skorgen, currently located in Arlington, Texas. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world.
More information about swoon at w w w that found that big science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a science foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.
Hey, it's Latife Nasser, this is Radiolab. We're back with Andy McEwan, who has got Meg and Ari and Damian sitting in front of a computer staring at a nonsensical blob of little baboon.
That baboon dots you were looking for, who influences you? And the idea was like, where to go? Is that right? Right.
Yeah. So every day this troop has to decide, like, how to navigate its landscape and has to reach consensus, which means that somehow some individuals have to move somewhere and others have to decide to follow.
So for those dots makes dots to actually answer this question. She and Ari and Damian had to figure out a way to to analyze them. And they came up with this idea that kind of acted as this key that unlocked this hidden pattern.
But maybe the easiest way to explain it is to actually tell you about this thing that Damian saw not on the computer screen, but right in front of him out in the field.
One morning we watched the group sort of as it was leaving the sleeping side and one of the baboons was walking in our direction and probably walked about 100 meters from the rest of the group.
And then it stopped and was standing there or sitting there on the haunches, as baboons do, declaring its intention to go in this direction. So the group was still milling around in the sleeping trees, and the group was clearly not that interested in coming in this direction and was not seeing any sort of further movements towards this.
So what really struck me is what the baboon did next, then went to and climbed up a dead tree and sat on top of this dead tree in a way that was clearly intending for it to be more prominent in the vision, like more observable by the rest of the group.
Wow. This is sitting on the top of the tree for, I think, almost 10 minutes, eventually giving up and then rejoining the group.
And the group went in a different direction.
What give you the sense that it wasn't just climbing the tree because it's an animal and animals do things that don't make sense.
It could have the risk of maybe anthropomorphizing. But I mean, you could see it had a degree of impatience to it.
So, you know, initially you sort of sat there on the ground and then it's got a bit restless and then you climb the tree and was very clearly facing the rest of the group, kind of observing, you know, it's a little bit uphill as well as I was really observing what the group was doing.
Well, like just staring down the group, like, I know you can all see me here. Yeah, exactly.
Now, that baboon in that moment was actually demonstrating two key moves to different kinds of movement interactions that Meg and Ari and Damien zeroed in on what we called pulse, which was like, I move away and you follow me, which is what Damiens baboon tried to do, and then inkers, which is I move away.
You don't follow me.
So I come back, which is what the baboon ended up doing. Right.
Another way to think about it is like if you imagine two baboons at either end of a slinky, OK, one moves off and that stretches slinky and then another one might follow it, which would be a successful pull.
Or one moves off the slinky kind of stretches. And then ultimately that one comes back and that's an anchor because the other one didn't want to follow whatever takes its heels in the cat, maybe.
And so Ari and Damien wrote these scripts to basically go through these 20 million data points and pull out all of the polls and anchors. And that ended up being sort of base for us to understand the dynamics of this decision making process.
You know, the matrix when Neo finally realizes that he's the one. Yeah. And then like the floor and the walls and even like the bad guy in front of him, just like Chernov's like moving green numbers and just like sees in this way that he never could see before. That's how I imagine it. Like they get all of a sudden see what was happening.
It's like they could see the program, the social programming of the baboon, totally.
Because once you have that sort of basic unit pulls and anchors, you can start to ask questions like, well, what are the characteristics that make one person more likely to follow another versus to not follow and to anchor them? What makes a baboon a successful leader?
And it turned out being the alpha guy didn't matter at all. The answer wasn't dominance. There was no impactive dominance. The answer wasn't each sex class.
And so it took her like actually a moment to believe what she was seeing, which was like a red dot move away and a blue dot follow. You'd see a pink dot move away and a dark blue dot follow. Rick, it didn't matter. You didn't it didn't matter at all who you were.
There was no correlation between rank and successful ness of being followed.
The thing that really did seem to impact whether or not you were successful in influencing the behavior was how they moved Whurley.
Do you mean like how they walked baboons that moved in this very directed, very straight way at an intermediate and very constant pace.
So they weren't moving fast, they weren't moving slow, were much more likely to successfully pull followers in individual. Who either moved slower or with more curvy parts? Right, so a young female, low ranking female, if he moved purposefully in a straight line, the alpha male could just follow her.
There would be no really. And you saw that?
Yeah, we absolutely saw it. So what we found was that every member of the group was able to successfully pull. Oh, wow.
Cool. So it's like anybody can be the leader at at at at any given time. Right.
But then what what happens if, like, if like two baboons have different ideas and want to go in different directions? Great question.
What we found is that if the direction between those two initiators or those two individuals going out in different directions is if the angle between those directions is relatively small, within 90 degrees of one another, let's say one not moving to the north and a different moving to the east, then the follower will tend to average those directions.
They just sort of compromise. They split the difference. They'll move directly down the center at forty five degrees.
At 45 degrees. Yeah. They just move straight in the middle like they literally split the difference. But but if two baboons were going not 90 degrees different, but in totally opposite directions, like one goes north, one goes south, there's no middle, there's no compromise. And Damien actually said he saw this happen.
There were baboons moving and kind of two different directions, almost 180 degree opposite. And both of these directions started to build up a bit of a consensus.
So there were there were supporters for each direction, but about the same number of supporters in each direction that created a bit of a stalemate.
The remaining baboons refused to follow, like they just won't budge.
And eventually they kind of have to all come back together, regroup and start again. Really?
Yeah, they start over. Now, let's say this happens again to baboons.
Let's say one young female heads north and one adult male head south, totally opposite directions.
The troop hangs out under the tree for a bit watching. Then a couple of them start to follow one way or the other, but let's say the young female, maybe there's something about the way she moves with purpose.
She gets just a couple more baboons to go her way. The rest of the troupe under the tree, they look north. They look south and in the end, what we found was this really clear majority rule again and again, the team saw that in these cases, the rest of the baboons are going to get up and go north with the young female that got those couple extra baboons to follow her.
And the smaller group that headed south initially, they turn around, head north and rejoin the group, go with whichever direction was preferred by more members of your group, even if the smaller group was filled with the highest ranking males. Yeah, even then. Wow. Oh, that's kind of.
Oh, that makes me like baboons, actually. That's really nice.
It's nice. Right. But actually for the baboons doing it kind of sucks.
I remember sort of. Realizing that it's taken almost 45 minutes to decide, wow, for the group to get going in the morning, and this was, you know, like any other morning, it was not it wasn't like a cold or morning or raining or anything. It just seemed to be that the group was completely struggling to come up with a solution to which direction to go.
And this is like in the morning there, they wake up. So basically they're deciding where to go eat breakfast.
Yeah, exactly. So, you know, it's it's quite striking that I would spend so long making this decision when all those individuals are probably quite hungry. So it's not like there's food in the trees where they're sleeping. They really have to move somewhere to get food initially.
And so they were paying the cost.
They haven't had a sip of water. They haven't had anything to eat, and they're putting this discussion in front of any of their physical needs. Forty five minutes.
Yeah, that seems like stupidly inefficient. Like it's like let's start the day already. Like, let's go.
Wouldn't it be more alpha male was like, let's go over here. We're going by like that would be one minute. Yeah.
And actually make sense that there are conditions under which it can go that direction. Right.
There's there's evidence from a different species that high ranking individuals can tilt group decisions in their favor. Are you there?
I hope so. Which brings us to Andrew King. Yes. Andrew is a biologist at Swansea University.
And a few years before Megg, he also did a baboon study. This was with a different species and it was over Namibia on the edge of the Namib Desert.
And in his study, he and his team left the baboon troop a little gift called Col's bucketfuls of corn kernels right into the sand, fairly close to this sleeping site.
After several days, the baboon troop stumbled upon this present. And when they did, the alpha male kind of just went bananas running around, chased everybody else off.
And it's as many as these corn that he could put into his mouth and shuffling around on it, picking up one, two, left, right, left, right, left, right, putting these corn.
And meanwhile, the rest of the troop, they just sit and wait patiently and wait for him to finish. That guy, I guess he does let if anyone is related to him, like if there are babies that are definitely his babies, he will let some of them eat a little bit of it. All right. You know, very selfish. And then they put more corn out that night. And next morning, exact same thing happens again. And they do this experiment again and again and again.
I think we did it for about 80 days. What, every morning for 80 days, the baboons wake up, they race off, follow the alpha to the patch. They just watch him pig out. And then finally they get to go on.
He's getting almost all of the. Yeah. And everybody else gets almost nothing. So we can say if you incentivize the alpha male, he will choose to go there and he will be followed. So you can say that there's been what you would call a despotic decision. One decides the rest follows with the alpha male having a big say in what they're doing.
So maybe what's going on here is like, you know, if the Alpha knows that there's some corn right around the corner, he's going to go for it is going to pull everyone along with him. But most mornings when he wakes up, he doesn't really know what's out there. He doesn't know what the best choices.
And there's really good evidence that the accuracy of decisions improves with the number of voices that are contributing information into making them like sort of like, you know, guess the weight of the bowl, you know, like the crowd gets wisdom of crowds.
Yes, exactly. They're going to make a better decision because they're all going to have a say. Right. Anyway, the point is, you've got these two studies that reach seemingly contradictory conclusions.
But according to Meg, what's exciting about the intersection between the work that Andrew has done and that we've done is that in some cases baboons can show a despotic decision making process, even if on a day to day, moment to moment basis, most of the group decision making process is very egalitarian, is very shared. And so I think that one of the interesting things, like I think oftentimes we sort of get this myopic sense of a species being one way or another that baboons are despotic or they're democratic, whereas in fact, like, these are just strategy.
Some decisions just have to be made. Now, for example, if you spotted a leopard and the leopard is running at you, you don't want to sit there and have a long process about do we want to run left or do you want to and just want to go. Right, right, right, right, right.
And so in cases like that, if leopards a real near threat, then you're going to go with the despot.
But then if you want to decide, OK, are we more likely to find food over the river or up the hill, there isn't perhaps the same time pressure. So you can afford to reach consensus via a more shared process in the interests of reaching a better decision. So what you see is like baboon society can be both despotic and democratic, but you can hold this.
Multiple potentiality. In your hands, to me, the interesting question isn't so much arbiter's egalitarian or are they despotic, but when? You know, in a way, she did she did sort of talk about that, like it was like if there's a leopard, then that's the time you want to be, you know, follow the leader, follow the despot. Right. But then if it's, you know, a lazy Sunday morning and you're going out to brunch with your friends, like maybe that's time to hear every voice.
Maybe that's the time for democracy, right? Yeah. And I think I think that's right.
But like, if you're a baboon, most of the things that happen in your day to day life are not those two extremes. And I think the question is and this is what Meg is focusing on moving forward, what's really going on in that middle space and where is the tipping point? Like there's some threshold where a group of baboons will go from a situation where they're all just like blindly following the tough guy, even if it's against their own interests, to a moment where a baboon, maybe it's the smallest runty baboon in the group stands up and marches with confidence in the direction that they think is right.
To the polls. All right, the story was reported and produced by Annie McKewon, and our fact checker was Diane Kelly.
I'm left with Nasser, this is Radiolab. Thank you for listening. Hi, this is Stephanie from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Now, Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Sean Reeler, Lulu Miller and lots of Nassr. Our co-host Dylan QIf is our director of Sound Design, and Susie Lichtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Rebecca Bressler, Rachel Kuzak, David Gabal, Tracy Hunte, Matt Kielty, Topin Lowe, Andy McEwan, Sarah Khari, Ariane Whack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster with help from Cima, i.e. Sarah sent back and Johnny Mullen, our fact checkers.