A Visit with Alan Alda

The Living Links Center was abuzz this week regarding the arrival of Alan Alda, the well-known actor from the 1970’s television comedy, “M.A.S.H.”

Alda made a return visit to the Living Links Center to discuss primate behavior and cognition as part of the upcoming PBS series entitled “The Human Spark,” which he will be hosting.

Along with producer Graham Chedd, our research team had the privilege of spending the day discussing our most recent findings regarding chimpanzees and capuchins from an evolutionary perspective. Alda’s genuinely curious nature and extensive travels were the groundwork for an enlightening exploration of our closest living relatives, and our understanding of human evolution.

For the purpose of this unique series, Alda has journeyed to various locations around the globe to document how primatologists are investigating empathy, culture, tool use and cooperation among chimpanzees. The Living Links team had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Alda and discuss our research in detail, focusing on the connections between humans, apes and monkeys. From the tower overlooking one of the large outdoor chimpanzee enclosures, Dr de Waal explained various food-sharing behaviors as the chimps enjoyed coconuts, watermelons and sugarcane. Alda’s crew also filmed some of the social learning experiments that have been conducted with chimpanzees by our team over the past couple of years. As the filming took place, chimps eagerly participated in different cognitive and tool-use tasks in order to retrieve food rewards. For Alda, witnessing the complexity of the negotiations and the distribution of prized food items as well as the problem-solving abilities amongst the chimpanzees seemed to authenticate some of the key elements of “The Human Spark.”

Overall, Alan Alda and the PBS crew provided our research team with an exciting opportunity to explain our evolutionary similarities and differences with non-human primates. The series is currently planned to air in 2009 and we are grateful to have participated.

Just before we sat down for lunch with Mr. Alda, we had a chance to grab a quick photo. From left to right: Darby Proctor, Victoria Horner, Matthew Campbell, Frans de Waal, Alan Alda and Devyn Carter.

— J. Devyn Carter


Impressions of the Baboons of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa

I spent the month of January tracking baboons in the Cape of Good Hope area of Table Mountain National Park in South Africa. I was working on a spatial ecology project with Tali Hoffman of the Baboon Research Unit (BRU) at the University of Cape Town.

The chacma baboons of the Cape region are cut off from the rest of the African continent by the urban area of Cape Town. As such, they are a critically endangered group of monkeys. There are only around 350 individuals left in the peninsula. Living on the edge of one of the largest cities in Africa, these baboons can provide valuable information about how human encroachment can effect the behavior and ecology of wild primate populations. Yet, little published research has been done on this population. Thankfully, BRU is now actively pursuing research on a number of aspects of the baboons’ daily life, from their basic spatial and foraging ecology to the effect of being followed by human monitors on their ranging patterns. You can read more about the work being done by BRU here.

After spending only a month with the baboons in the Cape I feel as though I only have a fleeting impression of their behavior and their situation with their human neighbors. As such, I will share with you a couple of the more interesting things I learned from this trip. Prior to leaving, most of my knowledge of baboons came from extinct fossil forms (see my masters thesis) and the behavior of the well studied hamadryas baboons of eastern Africa, who are known for their male dominated social interactions. One of the first things that surprised me was how tolerant the male baboons in the Cape are of infants. The infants often play around and with adult and sub-adult males. It is even a frequent sight to see a male carrying an infant on his back. I was totally unprepared for this level of male involvement in the rearing of young. Such male behavior is relatively rare in primates.

Perhaps one of the most touching instances I witnessed of male care came when a group of about four males moved a few hundred yards away, through dense vegetation, from the rest of the group. One of these males had an infant on his back. Since the vegetation was more dense where all the females were, I followed the group of males and the lone infant. The males and this infant started foraging on some short grass. As a researcher I always tried to be as unobtrusive as possible and stood apart from the baboons. However, despite standing to the side as the males and infant foraged, the infant became alarmed at my presence and started screaming. Instead of the male becoming alarmed, or a female rushing to the aid of an infant in distress, the closest male simply made gentle grunting sounds, which are a reassurance/friendly gesture in baboons. The male kept making this gentle call until the infant ran to him and calmed down. It was incredible to me that the infant’s mother, who was some distance away, did not rush to the aid of the infant, but rather seemed to trust this male care-taker. You can hear an example of this reassurance call here.

Of course, being in the field is not just watching baboons do cute things. Especially in the Cape region much of what I learned was how these baboons are impacted by, and in turn affect the human population around them. In some of the smaller towns in the peninsulas baboons are habitual raiders of human areas including garbage cans and even houses. Not only is this inconvenient for humans, but it is dangerous for baboons as they come into contact with unhealthy human food and any diseases the humans may have. Recently, human monitors have been employed to keep the baboons from going into the more dense urban areas. This is quite effective at keeping the baboons away, but it is unclear what effect the monitors will have on the baboon’s long-term behavior.

I worked specifically within the national park around the Cape of Good Hope, so the baboon/human contact issue was somewhat different, but raiding was still a problem. The park also utilizes monitors to keep the baboons away from areas that humans frequent, such as the visitors center. This would be extremely effective, if it were not for the tourists. Tourists, who drive through the park, generally stop on the side of the road whenever they see baboons. This would be fine if the tourists just sat in their cars and had a look at the baboons. Unfortunately, many tourists do not seem to grasp the fact that baboons are wild animals and can be quite dangerous, especially if the tourist has food. Instead, I saw tourists throw food from their cars and in some cases even hand food to a baboon. This only leads to the baboons learning that tourists are a source of food and rewards them for being aggressive toward humans, who will drop their food if a baboon charges at them.

So, what is the solution? How can humans and primates live in close proximity? That is a complex question and one that is being explored in many primate species across the world as humans move more and more into previously “wild” areas. It seems to me that there is no quick, or easy, or cheap fix. Perhaps where we need to begin in order to conserve these baboons, and other primate species, is with public education of the people that live in those areas. Only by including, and empowering the local people can primate conservation be successful.

For more general information on baboons click here .

— Darby Proctor

The Unsuspecting Alpha Male

The Living Links Center is home to two groups (the Nuts and the Bolts) of Capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). The last few weeks have been spent finalizing preparations for the transfer of three of our monkeys to a wildlife rescue and retirement facility in Texas. One of the individuals, Bravo, is the current alpha male of the Bolts group, though our observations of his behavior have led us to conclude that Bravo is a rather relaxed alpha. It is quite possible that he never wanted the role nor understood that he was in fact the alpha of the group. This likely has to do with how he came into the position in the first place.

In the wild, capuchin males will leave their natal group and find another group to take over and become the alpha. This involves physically ousting the current alpha male and gaining support of the resident females. In Bravo’s case, we transferred the previous alpha male to another facility and Bravo, being the second in line and the largest male in the group, was the obvious choice for alpha. In addition, he already had support from the main females in the group, Star, Sammie and Bias. In the picture below Bravo is the large male in the center who is being groomed by Sammie. Star, the alpha female, is on the left and Snarf is on the right.

In the months following his unanticipated promotion to alpha male, Bravo enjoyed the benefits of his new position, namely eating first and mating with the females, but declined to perform some primary alpha duties, such as intervening during group conflicts. This has allowed the alpha female, Star, to have an abnormal authority over the group. Waiting in the wings has been our beta male, Mason. Mason often defends the lowest ranking individuals of the group and harasses the offspring of the highest-ranking females. As Bravo’s transfer date draws closer, we are uncertain whether Mason will realize that he is now eligible for the alpha position, particularly given our previous experience with Bravo. However, there is one major difference between Bravo and Mason’s accession, namely that Mason does not have the female support that Bravo had. This may require Mason to take an active role in acquiring the alpha position. During the coming weeks we will be closely monitoring the group to see how this succession transpires and whether Mason will pursue support from the females. Likewise, we will observe how the females respond to Bravo’s absence and Mason’s expanding authority.

— Jen Pokorny