Chacma Baboon Research
In 2019, a fascinating primate project began at Swebeswebe, home to several of South Africa's primate species, including chacma baboons, vervet monkeys and the lesser bushbaby. What made Swebeswebe so ideal for this study was its ever-changing climate, seasonality and long periods without rain, which can be tough for the animals. The group of baboons living here faces some unique challenges. They have to deal with a lot of predators whilst sleeping together in one shared spot. By studying these primates in such a diverse and demanding environment, researchers hope to gain insights into how these animals adapt to different stresses and how they interact with each other. They want to find out if these conditions might even lead to the development of more complex societies among the baboons. It's an exciting project that sheds light on the captivating lives of primates and the ways they respond to their surroundings.
The day to day of babooning
Observations made by a field student...
First light hits the bushveld and brings in a new day; the bushbabies have gone back to bed, the birds already singing their choruses, and as for us, it is the start of searching for baboons. With the sky still a hazy purple we make our way down Papio trail towards the baboon cave – at this point we could do the route with our eyes closed we know it so well. When we arrive at the cave, we usually find the troop sitting on top, sunning themselves in the first morning light that has only just reached the height of the mountain. It’s difficult not to be in awe at the site of the cave and the landscape that surrounds it – it’s definitely not a bad place to call your office.
As the baboons move off to start their day of foraging, we follow closely alongside collecting GPS data of their movement throughout the day as well as behavioural scans of individuals in the troop. What makes this project so interesting is that several troops share the same cave sleeping site or are present in the same area, but for the most part we follow a troop of 64 individuals known as BTKT.
We spend the day being guided by the baboons up and down mountains, along riverbeds and through forests, sometimes walking up to 20km a day. On a full day of following the troop they will lead us back to the cave where they catch the last bit of sunlight. Here they spend some time grooming each other and resting after a long day of foraging before they head back up into the mouth of the cave. When you spend this much time with the troop you start to get to know the personalities of each individual and it feels like you are not only a researcher, but on some level, are part of the troop. Around 17:15 we head back up Papio trail towards camp; the birds have quietened, the bushbabies have left their sleeping tree for the night, and for us, a time to relax after a day of following baboons.
There are a lot of unique characteristics to the Swebe baboons, but I think one of the most interesting qualities of this project is the social dynamics between the troops and their shared cave sleeping site. The current troop that we mainly follow is known as BTKT that started as the two smaller groups of Broken Tail and Kink Tail, named after the characteristics of the dominant males in each troop. There are 64 individuals in this merged group, each with different physical characteristics and personalities that we use to identify them by name. Some personal favourites are Mylo with her squonk tail, Tom with his blonde eyebrow, and Panthera who looks like someone has wrung his tail out like a cloth.
The project started with another troop, however, known as the Babes. This is a smaller and very relaxed group that currently only has one dominant male, whereas BTKT interestingly has six adult males with no clear hierarchy. Recently both troops have been in the same area when we find them in the morning which has led to some interesting interactions. In the last couple of months we’ve seen BTKT cross fence lines more often than usual which is likely due to the Babes following closely behind them and pushing them forward. This isn’t the first time this has happened within the project as the merging of BTKT started off in a very similar way to these recent patterns. It is possible that in the near future the Babes may merge with BTKT, forming a supergroup of roughly 95 baboons.
The one thing we’ve learnt from our baboons, however, is that nothing is as predictable as it seems and so time will only tell as to how these troops will react to one another. But for now, we’re keeping a close eye on these groups and hopefully BTKT finishes up their foraging on other reserves so we can follow them more closely.
Returning to Swebeswebe
The Swebeswebe Primate Research project sets out to understand how primates respond to climatic, ecological, and social stress, and within it allows many student projects like mine to take place. I worked with the chacmas on this site last year for my honours year and have come back to expand on my work for my master’s project (as well as spend some more time with the troop). Coming back to continue my research feels like I’ve returned home in a way, from seeing the familiar faces on the reserve to being back with BTKT and meeting all the new members of the troop in the time that’s passed.
My research focuses on how the troop’s behaviour and movement is affected by temperature and weather conditions, predation, food and water resources, troop social dynamics, as well as human influence. I am interested in seeing how the troop may prioritise certain behaviours or use specific microhabitats within the reserve depending on these changing environmental conditions. Last year I worked during the winter months and so having a full year to collect data this time around is really exciting in that I can compare the troop’s behaviour over the different seasons and hopefully see some distinct changes in this.
It is a high effort job but it’s worth all of it, especially knowing I get to call the bush my home for this year of field work. I am hoping to attend some conferences going forward to speak about my work as well as the greater project here at Swebeswebe. I’ve learnt a lot about field work in my time here and have gotten to know the troop really well in the seven months of working with them. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start my career off and I’m excited to see where this leads me.