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The Challenge of Survival for Wild Infant Baboons

Over the past 40 years, researchers have learned that social relationships can mean life or death for young primates.

Susan C. Alberts

Surviving infancy is challenging for all wild primates, as decades of research on species ranging from lemurs to gorillas have revealed. To survive its first year of life, an infant baboon must learn to identify and consume more than 250 types of food, recognize and avoid dangers from other baboons both inside and outside the group, and evade fatal disease and predation. In Amboseli, Kenya, first-year mortality has averaged about 30 percent over the four decades of the Amboseli Baboon Research Project but has climbed as high as 50 percent during difficult times. Just getting through infancy represents a huge piece of the Darwinian gauntlet that every organism must run.

The traits that help primates survive infancy tell us much about how natural selection has shaped the behavior of these highly social, complex, and charismatic species. Research shows that a young primate’s social context is often the most important key to its survival. That is, although the biggest threats to infants in most primate species are nutritional stress, disease, and predators, the most important sources of protection against these threats are social relationships: the nurturing that a young animal receives from its parents, beneficent attentions it may receive from siblings and other group members, and the protection and collective knowledge of the social group as a whole. At the same time, other members of its own species can represent serious threats to an infant’s survival. These threats include unfamiliar adults (especially males), competitive groupmates, and other social groups that compete with an infant’s group for resources. Studying infant behaviors as well as those of adults toward them reveals insights about the evolution of parenting and friendship.

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