Word play. Using a computer game, baboons learned to identify English words from nonsense based on common groupings of letters.

Joël Fagot

Signs of democracy seen in typically authoritarian baboon society

When it’s time to travel, wild olive baboons make democratic decisions about where to go, even though they live in hierarchical societies. The discovery is a surprise, researchers report online today in Science, because large, alpha males typically get their way—pushing subordinates aside to get food or mates. But when choosing where to travel, a baboon’s social rank or sex is irrelevant, perhaps because the decision affects the entire group. The scientists teased apart the animals’ decision-making process by trapping and fitting GPS collars on 25 baboons (Papio anubis) in Kenya. The collars recorded each animal’s location every second for 14 days while they moved, ate, played, and just hung out together (as in the photo above). Using these data, the researchers studied the baboons’ movements relative to one another. Their analysis revealed that certain baboons are “initiators”—individuals who typically step away from the others. If another baboon followed, then it was likely others would as well, until the entire troop was on the move. But if no one followed the initiator, the group was more apt to stay put. The team found that the baboons preferred to travel when there were several initiators who all agreed on a particular direction. When they disagreed, the other baboons didn’t come to blows. Instead, they voted with their feet and simply followed the subgroup with the most initiators. The study suggests that even in highly stratified societies, there may be an evolutionary benefit to settling disputes with egalitarian rules rather than fisticuffs.