Female Baboons Reap Benefits From Having Well-Connected Friends

July 28, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Female baboons grooming one another
Photo credit: University of Pennsylvania

Wild monkeys make their social networks work for them.

Most humans are embedded in social networks consisting of friends, family, and acquaintances. Social animals similarly find themselves in forming an array of connections with others, and for baboons, these links can affect how long females live and how likely their offspring are to survive.

In a new study published in Royal Society Open Science, researchers studied the social networks of 49 wild baboon females in Botswana over seven years. A clear trend emerged: the offspring of females who were friends with well-connected females enjoyed greater survival.

“There seems to be a strong selective pressure for close, same-sex friendships in these baboons,” said study lead author Dorothy Cheney from the University of Pennsylvania, in a press release. “You can easily imagine that, if you have a friend who herself has a lot of other close friends, you’re indirectly connected to them and could derive benefits from those connections.”

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To figure out who was friends with whom, the researchers looked at behaviors that indicate close bonds, such as grooming each other or simply spending time near one another. Then they assessed the strengths of those bonds along with other measures, like whether a female was bonded to others in a closed group or “clique,” or if a female formed friendships with others who themselves were connected to many others in the group.

It was the latter group of females — the ones whose friends had many other friends — that seemed to reap the greatest benefits.

Raising offspring is riddled with challenges for baboons. Little ones are in constant danger of getting picked off by lions and hyenas. The researchers suspect that having a mother with well-connected friends helps young establish themselves nearer to the centers of the groups, lowering their risk of encountering predators.

Further, having popular friends might be a form of social insurance for females.

"Even if your network was damaged by losing your best friend, if your best friend had a lot of close connections, it might make it easier to facilitate a new friendship with those individuals," Cheney proposes.

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