Baboons with Fitbits reveal the cost of social cohesion

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Keeping pace and staying together can be difficult for baboons, as anyone who has ever gone hiking as a family or taken their toddler to the zoo knows.

According to a new study, published Tuesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, individual baboons must move at suboptimal speeds in order to maintain cohesion.

For baboons and other social animals, living and moving together offers advantages. For one, there’s security in numbers. But the animal kingdom is full of tradeoffs, and sacrifices must be made to keep the troop together.

Data from Fitbit-like accelerometers attached to members of a baboon troop in Kenya showed the smallest, slowest individuals tend to make the biggest sacrifice, moving at speeds much faster than their preferred pace.

Meg Crofoot, senior study author, has been studying the same baboon troop for nearly a decade, but until recently, researchers lacked the technology to precisely track baboon movements.

“Locomotor capacity clearly governs the way animal societies move,” Crofoot said in a press release.

“The revolution in wearable technology now allows us to take locomotion research into the wild,” said Crofoot, director of the Ecology of Animal Societies at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.

Scientists fitted GPS trackers and accelerometers to 25 wild baboons in Kenya for the study, nearly the entire troop.

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The GPS data, including more than 10 million data points, revealed the troop’s broader movement patterns, while the accelerometers recorded the steps taken and speeds achieved by individual troop members.

Researchers used ergonomic data to estimate the preferred gait and speeds of the baboons based on their size. Bigger baboons are able to achiever faster speeds more easily as a result of their longer limbs.

“The leg is like a big pendulum that you are swinging and that leads to a preferred gait, which translates into preferred speed of movement,” said first author Roi Harel, researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.

The tracking and movement data showed that all members of the troop move at suboptimal speeds. Bigger baboons move at slower than ideal speeds, while smaller baboons move faster than they would prefer.

“The dominant male clearly wields power over other baboons in one-on-one interactions,” said Harel. “But when it comes to collective movement, it seems like a shared decision-making process drives the group.”

The troop isn’t exactly a utopia. The smallest members of the troop have to make the biggest sacrifice, moving at more uncomfortable speeds, to make sure everyone sticks together.

“This might be because they have the most to gain from group membership,” said Harel.

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Harel and his colleagues confirmed the significance of these locomotive sacrifices using computer models.

The simulations revealed that if individuals moved at ergonomically optimal speeds, troop cohesion would quickly deteriorate.

The simulations also confirmed that cohesion was maintained when smaller baboons accelerated and larger baboons slowed down, which scientists observed in the field.

Scientists will conduct additional research in the future.

pe to investigate the ways these ergonomic dynamics might influence the sizes of different groups.

“Maybe the differing locomotor ability of individual animals actually puts an upper limit on how large groups can be. Maybe it forces certain individuals to group together, like mothers caring for toddlers. Maybe it’s driving complex organization,” Crofoot said.

“Now we have a way of studying locomotion in the wild, we can finally merge this into how we think about the structure of animal societies,” Crofoot said.


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