The Challenge of Survival for Wild Infant Baboons

Author: Susan Alberts

Surviving infancy is challenging for wild primates, as decades of research on species ranging from lemurs to gorillas have revealed. For an infant baboon, surviving the first year of life requires learning to identify and successfully consume more than 250 types of food, avoiding fatal disease and predation, and perhaps most importantly identifying and avoiding dangers from other baboons both inside and outside their social group. In Amboseli, first-year mortality has averaged about 30 percent over the four decades of our study, 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 animal must run.

We have published a popular article in American Scientist magazine, in which we relate stories about Amboseli infants who did and did not make it through that Darwinian gauntlet. These are stories about care by mothers and fathers, about orphaning and adoption, and also about exploitation, infanticide, and cannibalism. The common thread woven through these stories is that young baboons are dependent on – and vulnerable to – multiple adults in their social circles for an extended period of time. The saying, in human societies, that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ turns out to have strong resonance throughout our primate family tree: social ties can determine whether a young animal lives or dies just as surely as an outbreak of disease or a lurking predator. Our primate cousins, like ourselves, are essentially social creatures in the deepest sense of the word. Enjoy the article!