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GPS Tracking Shows Differences Between Human and Primate Societies

By Alex Russell - Compared to other animals, humans have highly stratified societies. Birds, fish and other animals have this, too—as do other primates—but it’s not as pronounced as it is with humans. UC Davis anthropologist Margaret Crofoot, a member of the ISS Executive Committee, is working to understand what primate societies can tell us about humans and also the changing global environment.

Crofoot’s current research is on how groups of baboons make decisions collectively. Baboons have members in their troops who are big and little, old and young and even babies. All have different needs. She wants to know how they reach consensus when they can’t sit down and talk it out, like people do.

To learn about this, Crofoot and her team put GPS collars on 26 baboons and has worked with computer scientists to track them at one point per second for an entire month.

They have found that generally, majority rule drives group decisions, even when big alpha males have a lot of political and social power. On average, dominance by individuals like these does not drive what the group will do. Untamed Science did a video on the study.

Here she talking more about her work and what it means for us as humans and the world we live in.

How did you get started in this line of research?

This is relatively new for me. It emerged from my work in Panama on competition between groups of capuchins and how they defend resources and space. It’s perhaps not surprising that big groups have a competitive advantage. You would expect a group that has twice as many members to be able to compete against smaller groups. But what I found was that capuchins have a really strong home-field advantage. So a small group in the middle of its own range can almost always beat even much larger groups of intruders.

There are social similarities between primate systems and human social system. As researchers, we are interested particularly in primate relationships because they have been hypothesized to be the same important drivers of both cultural and biological evolution for humans. We hope that to understand how these relationships play out in other species will provide an important context for understanding patterns we see in humans.

What are opportunities for interdisciplinary research related to your work?

The study with baboons is an interdisciplinary project funded by the National Science Foundation. We are working with a team of computer scientists from the University of Illinois, Chicago who are interested in social networks between individuals. From their perspective, they’re not particularly fussy whether their individuals are Facebook users, or baboons, or neurons. We have a cool dataset that brings this detailed information without any of the privacy concerns about working with people.

I also collaborate heavily with ecologists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. I have a big project there where we are looking at comparative foraging strategies across a number of mammalian species. At our field site, there is a 2-month period where all of the fruit-eating animals rely on a single tree species for their food.. We can map that fruit tree for the entire area. This lets us compare on even footing a really diverse set of species and how they each forage for food.

What do you think are the biggest opportunities in your field?

One of the things about working with primates in the field is that your research ends up being strongly influenced by the fact that we are changing our environment at an increased rate. With the habitats of the animals we are studying disappearing, we have an increased urgency to understand what kind of habitat they need to survive.

In the midst of this urgency there are also new tools that allow us to get the kinds of data we didn’t have access to before. I’m on the executive board for ICARUS (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space), which is a collaboration between scientists and space researchers to put a dedicated animal tracking sensor on the International Space Station in 2016.  This will allow global tracking of many of the smallest animals that we cannot do with satellites. This will open up opportunities to understand at both a finer and a larger scale how animals move. This is really critical to understanding a lot of the larger ecological problems we are facing.

Whose work on campus are you most excited about?

This is a hard question, because I’ve only been here just over a year. Mark Goldman in neurology, physiology and behavior looks at decision-making in ant colonies from a neurological perspective. At the UC Davis Quail Ridge Reserve, researchers are tracking small animals that can’t be tracked with GPS. Right now juvenile dispersion is a black box. We don’t know anything about animals at this stage of life. The long-term data series he’s helping to build, that in part tracks juveniles, can help us understand the effects of a changing global climate.