Baboons may not chat on the phone, go to the movies or see each other in class. But they still have friends who brighten their days. Baboon buddies may use their long fingers and sometimes even their teeth to clean dirt and bugs out of each other’s fur.
Such grooming sessions are “like getting a hug,” Liza Moscovice told Science News. Moscovice, a biologist at Binghamton University in New York, has studied ways that animals may be generous to one another.
Scientists — and pet owners — have known for a long time that animals can be kind to each other. Elephants may share food with each other, for example. But scientists had assumed until recently that this mostly happens between animals that are closely related. Unrelated animals were thought to be nice to each other for short periods only.
Studies by researchers like Moscovice now indicate this isn’t necessarily true. In 2010, Moscovice and her colleagues published a study showing that female baboons that share good experiences are more likely to help each other in the future.
In the team’s experiment, pairs of wild, unrelated baboons first had a good groom together, picking bugs and dirt off of each other. Later, the scientists played a recording of a call for help from one of the baboons. Upon hearing the recording, the baboon went looking for her friend in the direction of the loudspeaker. This suggests that the pair’s earlier grooming experience formed a true bond of friendship.
Mothers and daughters have the strongest relationships among baboons. Sisters and other female relatives also look out for each other. “Relatives generally help regardless of whether they’ve groomed or interacted recently,” Moscovice told Science News.
But for baboons without female family around, friends can make a big difference in life, Moscovice says. Baboon societies can be fierce and aggressive; dominant animals may control a greater share of food. A female may share food more readily with friends than with individuals she hasn’t groomed or been groomed by.
Other scientists have documented similar friendships among wild horses and chimpanzees. Moscovice says that by studying how friendships form among animals, scientists may learn more about human relationships as well.
Power Words (adapted from the New Oxford American Dictionary)
baboon A large, ground-dwelling monkey with a long, doglike snout and large teeth.
biology The study of living things.