Baboons listen for who’s tops

Baboons can tell who's in charge by the sound of voices alone.

You’re probably pretty good at recognizing people’s voices and responding in a suitable way. If you hear anger in a parent’s voice, for instance, you might cool it for a while. When you hear your teacher walking down the hall toward the classroom, it’s probably a good idea to start settling down. If you overhear a kid talking back to a teacher, you’re likely to pay special attention.

 

A colorful baboon.

 

Baboons, it turns out, have similar social skills. Research has already shown that female baboons can recognize the voices of close female relatives. They can also tell, from top to bottom, who’s in charge and who isn’t within their own families.

Biologists at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia wanted to know if baboons could also decipher who’s dominant over whom by the sound of voices alone when other families are around.

For the study, a group of female baboons from Botswana listened to recordings of voices of other female members from their community. When they heard a lower-ranking baboon challenge one who was more dominant, the baboons in the study stared longer at the loudspeakers, the researchers found.

This behavior suggests that a baboon’s ears perk up when there’s a challenge to the group’s social structure. The animal seems to want to know whether a change in who’s ranked ahead of whom is about to happen.

The situation is comparable to hearing a student talk back to a teacher. You would probably take notice, too. Even if the kid didn’t win the confrontation, you would want to know what was going to happen next and what that might mean for you.

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