For baboons, running away from home is something a boy is expected to do. Most baboon species rely on young males leaving the social group they’re born into and starting or joining another group to disperse genes and ensure diversity. In one species, though, the hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) of northeast Africa, genetic evidence suggests that it’s the females who are the genetic movers and shakers. How that could be was, for the longest time, a real head-scratcher. The most basic hamdryas social group is made up of one male and a harem of 2-11 females. No one was sure how these females could leave, since the males can be a little clingy, keeping their females close through aggressive, and sometimes violent, herding.
In the late 1960s, biologists suggested that females might move to other groups not by leaving on their own, but when they’re abducted by other males. Researchers had, without seeing the abductions directly, found evidence that females in groups they were studying had been taken and then retrieved by the male from their original group within a matter of days. In the four decades since, though, no one had actually seen an abduction happen in the wild (probably with good reason, since observing and recording abductions in detail would require long-term, simultaneous observations of multiple baboon groups).
That changed in a few years ago, when Mathew Pines from the Filoha Hamadryas Project in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Larissa Swedell from Queens College in New York were the first people to witness not just one, but three, attempted baboon-nappings and rescues live and in the fur. The pair recently described these abductions in the journal Primates.
In the northern reaches of Ethiopia’s Awash National Park, five bands (A band is a gathering of multiple clans, which are made up of two or three harems) of baboons, each made up of 60–400 individuals, make their home on vast stretches of acacia scrubland. Pines and his colleague Teklu Tesfaye followed and watched one of these bands, band 1, for 15 days each month, 9-11 months a year, for four years.
In early 2007, about a year into their stakeout, they were watching Mick, a young adult male, and his single female, Julie. Everything seemed normal. Later in the day, the band ran into another band at one of the cliffs where the baboons like to sleep. The next morning, Julie was gone and Mick was seen running along the cliff edge towards the area where band 2 was sleeping. Pines followed and found Mick embracing Julie, surrounded by band 2 baboons. A male harem leader from band 2 approached and reached out and touched Julie. Mick attacked him. The second male ran off, leaving Mick to fret over Julie, only to return and touch Julie again, sparking another attack from Mick. This went on for 40 minutes and by the end, Mick, Julie and the band 2 male had all gotten injured. The band 2 male eventually gave up. Mick dragged the injured Julie to her feet and back towards band 1.
The second attempted abduction happened in March 2008. Bands 1 and 3 had come together at a sleeping cliff and, after they had traveled together for a while, a fight broke out. When the two bands separated about 15 minutes later, Jeff, a leader of a five-female harem in band 1was spotted with just four females. Emma, Jeff’s large juvenile female, was missing. With his remaining females in tow, Jeff slinked around the edge of the band 3 group and spotted Emma being groomed by another male. Jeff charged and the rival male turned to defend himself, allowing Emma to escape. She ran to Jeff, who grabbed her and herded her toward the rest of his females. The group went back to band 1 together without any resistance from the band 3 male.
The third, and most fully observed, abduction attempt happened just about a year later. Forest, a leader of ﬁve females in band 1, was seen being chased by several male leaders from the same band. Two of Forest’s females were separated from him during the chase and were quickly grabbed and taken by other males. One of the females, Gump, was taken by Abu, a member of Forest’s clan. The other female, Candy was taken by Tap, a young adult.
Abu herded, mounted, and groomed Gump for about an hour when he was interrupted by Critical, a juvenile, and challenged. The two fought for about 10 minutes until Critical gave up and left. Mick, an adult harem leader, took advantage of the tired Abu and drove him off. Mick proceeded to herd Gump up a tree and groom her. Forest found them a few minutes later, fought with Mick and drove him away. Gump climbed down from the tree and followed Forest and the other females into a thicket. Pines heard the sound of a fight and presumed it was between Forest and Tap, because Forest emerged a few minutes later with Candy and the rest of his harem.
In these three abductions, you can see a number of similarities in the behavior of the abductors, the abductees and the retrievers. In two cases, the abducting males made their move during a conﬂict either between groups or within the same group. The chaos of a fight gives the abductor some cover to steal away a female while without having to fight her male and risk injury to himself.
There’s a heavy price to pay for using this tactic though, because the males who had their females stolen always went to retrieve her, even at the risk of injury to himself and the loss and injury of his other females, which always accompanied them into rival territory. Pines and Swedell hypothesize that the males go to retrieve their females in these cases because they will not accept losing possession of a female without a direct challenge from the abductor. Snatching her on the sly just isn’t a “fair” tactic.
In all three abductions, the kidnapped female returned to her original male leader willingly and made no attempt to stay with their abductor. This makes things easier for her rescuer, who doesn’t have to put as much energy into dragging her back and can minimize the time he spends in rival territory.
While the observation of these three attempted abductions is noteworthy, they’re still attempted abductions. No one’s seen a successful one, leaving the question of how females disperse through the population still without a solid answer. Pines and Swedell say that it’s possible that abductors could have a better chance of keeping their victim the two bands separate completely soon after the abduction or if the abductor can simply avoid the original male long enough to form a bond with the female so its less likely that she’ll willingly return home. It’s also possible, they say, that a male will never accept the loss of a female and always attempt to retrieve her. Sometimes he’ll rescue the damsel in distress, like in these three cases, and sometimes he’ll just go home defeated and empty handed.
Reference: Pines M, & Swedell L (2011). Not without a fair fight: failed abductions of females in wild hamadryas baboons. Primates; journal of primatology PMID: 21359653