Baboons are found as far north as the semidesert
of Saudi Arabia (Papio hamadryas) and
as far south as Cape Town in South Africa (P. cynocephalus
ursinus). The regional variants of the
cynocephalus (dog-headed) baboon (chacma in
the south, Guinea in the west, olive in the north
east, and yellow baboon in the southeast) are considered
to be the same species by most experts.
The northeastern variant, the hamadryas, is generally
considered to be a separate species but can
interbreed with the olive baboon of Ethiopia.
Baboons and Their Environment
Baboons are very numerous in Africa, and are among the most adaptable of all mammals. This adaptability also allows baboons to survive in wet forest and the driest semidesert regions. They eat almost any plant material or small animal they encounter. Baboons often survive quite well in and around human settlements. They sometimes cause severe crop damage when they visit farmers' fields, since they are capable of eating even the toughest roots, such as cassava and sweet potato, but they also forage on farmers' bananas and maize. Baboons can survive on garbage at tourist lodges, or find food in near deserts in Namibia, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia. Baboons sleep in trees or caves and cliff ledges, for protection from nocturnal predators.
Except in the driest and coldest habitats, baboons form large groups and travel widely in the course of a day. Groups often exceed one hundred animals and contain scores of juveniles and females, plus a few adult males. These large social groups are composed of matrilines-a kin-group of sisters and their daughterswhoall descend fromone female, plus their infant and juvenile male offspring- and unrelated adult males, who compete for mating access to females with sexual swellings. Alarge group can contain several matrilines, which may compete with each other over access to food, shelter, and male protection. The adult males in the group often fight fiercely among themselves, using coalitions to overcome single competitors. The typically calm life of moving in search of food is regularly interrupted by squabbles and mild competition over resources. More rarely, large fights break out within groups, and injuries follow. The most severe aggression is seen when a new adult male immigrates into a group, fights the other males to obtain high rank, and even harasses females and their young. Some cases of infanticide have been reported in such circumstances. The hamadryas baboons differ most in social organization. They do not build matrilines based on female kinship, but rather a female leaves the group in which she was born and bonds to a particular male as her future mate. This male plays an important social role as protector of a small group of one to three females. These small, one-male units travel and forage independently most of the time, but reunite with other units at night to form large herds often numbering in the hundreds. Baboons have been studied extensively by biomedical researchers because of their physiological similarities to humans and because they are common animals in Africa. Baboons have also been studied intensively by anthropologists and evolutionary biologists interested in human origins. That is because the baboon evolved from an arboreal monkey that first exploited dry, open habitats some ten to twenty-five million years ago. In the past, anthropological theory suggested that our own ancestors followed a similar evolutionary pathway. Thus, baboons were seen for some time as a useful model for human evolution. This idea has changed somewhat over time as scientists have found that the group sizes, social organizations, and dietary habits of baboons probably do not mirror those of our ancestors. A more recent view holds that we can learn about antipredator behavior and habitat selection of our ancestors by observing baboons in similar habitats today.
Genus and species: Papio cynocephalus (savanna baboon), P. hamadryas (hamadryas baboon), P. leucophaeus (drill), P. sphinx (mandrill) Geographical location: Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Arabian Peninsula
Habitat: Mostly arid, tropical savanna-woodlands, but also temperate areas and rain forests Gestational period: Six to seven months
Life span: In the wild, baboons older than fifteen years are rare, but in captivity adults may live to twenty-five or thirty years
Special anatomy: Reproductive females display a sexual swelling in the perineal region and around the buttocks that, at the time of ovulation, may contain several liters of fluid and turn bright red; adult males have extremely long canines which they use to threaten rivals, display their fighting ability to receptive females, or inflict wounds
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