Studying Baboons in Africa — and Learning About Humans

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

IN PARTS OF AFRICA, baboons can be controversial. Some people consider them pests, while others value the lessons they teach us about human behavior.

Queens College anthropology professor Larissa Swedell has studied the behavior, environment and evolution of baboons in Africa for almost two decades. Swedell uses her research to inform conservation strategies and help humans and baboons to coexist.

In Cape Town, South Africa, stories about human-baboon conflict appear regularly in the media, says Swedell. “We’re just trying to be an objective voice presenting accurate and useful information about baboons. We try to help people understand that they’re not your enemies and they won’t eat you. They just want your food,” says Swedell, whose research focuses on the social behavior and mating patterns of baboons.

She is currently involved in two field projects: one on hamadryas baboons at the Filoha field site, located in the Awash National Park in Central Ethiopia, and the second on chacma baboons in the Tokai Forest outside of Cape Town.

Swedell and her team observe baboons in their natural habitat and collect behavioral data on each individual. The researchers record everything that the baboon does over 15-minute periods, taking notes on grooming, mating, feeding and socializing habits. Over time, enough samples are collected to be representative of an individual baboon’s behavior.

Swedell’s fieldwork on hamadryas baboons focuses on the role of females in this unusual multi-layered social system, which she became interested in because it is so male-dominated. Her other research program, on the chacma baboon, examines their relationship with their human neighbors. It’s interesting because “there are a lot of potential stressors for the baboons in South Africa that are unique,” says Swedell, “such as being chased by people and having things thrown at them.”

Swedell contends that by studying baboons we can learn more about the evolution of humans and the biology behind modern human behavior. “When I watch baboons they remind me of humans, their position in the social hierarchy impacts how much food they eat, where they sit and who they interact with … and that’s not very different from our own behavior.”

CUNY doctoral students Margaret Bryer, left, and Shahrina Chowdhury collecting observational data on chacma baboons in South Africa

CUNY doctoral students
Margaret Bryer, left, and
Shahrina Chowdhury
collecting observational
data on chacma baboons in South Africa