One primate has colonized more of Africa than any other. The versatile baboon is at home everywhere from rainforest to mountaintop. Almost anywhere that has food, water, and safe shelter at night is baboon territory, making them the most successful, diverse and widespread monkey around.
From the hamadryas baboons in the Somali desert to the chacmas of South Africa’s Drakensberg mountains, these primates can adapt to the demands of most any habitat.
In the dark, shaded world of the West African rainforest, the most powerful baboon of all — the mandrill — sports a spectacularly colorful face mask. His vibrant colors attract the opposite sex and announce his rank to other males. The brighter the better in mandrill society.
At the southern tip of Africa, baboons have acquired a taste that few primates other than humans share. While rich in variety, plants here hold little nutritional value. So, when the tide is out, the local chacmas are down on the seashore finding crabs, mussels, and other small sea creatures to supplement their diet.
Baboon society is a complex web of politics and alliances. Females are the majority, and center of the web. Their place in society is fixed at birth, and almost never changes. Males, on the other hand, live their lives as one long struggle to move up the hierarchy.
Surprisingly, research has recently shown that baboons are capable of altruism. In Ghana, a patas monkey that became lost when it was still very young took up residence with a local troop of baboons. It was adopted and accepted as one of the family, playing, eating and grooming alongside their own young.
Altruism is usually seen as a uniquely human virtue, but baboons echo human society in number of ways. Socially advanced and sophisticated, adaptable and versatile, devoted to their young, fearless in defense of the group — all of these characteristics shared with their primate cousins, the humans.