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Collar cameras shed light on quirky baboon diet

A chacma baboon in Zambia.

A chacma baboon in Zambia. Image by flowcomm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

  • A new study has found that chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) like to feed on antelope poop, especially during drier months when vegetation might be sparse.
  • Researchers deployed collar cameras attached to four baboons in South Africa as part of a documentary film in 2017; they later analyzed footage from two of them.
  • They also gained insights into how baboons were interacting with other species that share their habitat.
  • According to the study, collar cameras gave researchers a “primate-eye perspective” into the animals’ lives, and could be used in the future to gain more insights into other behavioral traits.

What’s on the menu tonight? For one of the world’s largest species of monkeys, it’s likely to be antelope poop.

This was among the findings from a study in which researchers attached collar cameras on chacma baboons (Papio ursinus), native to Southern Africa. Apart from discovering previously unknown foraging behavior, the scientists were also able to observe the baboons’ interactions with other animals.

According to the study published in the International Journal of Primatology, the use of collar cameras gave researchers a “primate-eye perspective” of the animals’ lives.

“Typically, in primate behavioral research, people tend to habituate primates to human presence. But by being there, you might bias some of the results in the data you collect,” Ben Walton, co-author of the study and doctoral candidate at the Department of Anthropology at Durham University, U.K., told Mongabay in a video interview. “These cameras take people out of the equation, and you can observe some really detailed aspects of their lives without the effect of human presence.”

Primate populations have seen a drastic decline globally, primarily due to rapid habitat loss and indiscriminate hunting. While chacma baboons don’t feature among threatened species, their populations have also plummeted in their primary habitats. As human settlements spread into their habitats, human-baboon conflicts have escalated in recent years.

“They go into farmers’ fields and cause economic losses for them, and then are trapped or shot in response,” Walton said.

A baboon's hand holding grass.
Researchers discovered previously unknown foraging behavior of chacma baboons in South Africa after analyzing footage from collar cameras attached to the animals. Image courtesy of Ben Walton and the BBC Natural History Unit. 
Analysis of the videos found that chacma baboons like to feed on antelope feces during drier months when vegetation is sparse.
Analysis of the videos found that chacma baboons like to feed on antelope feces during drier months when vegetation is sparse. Image courtesy of Ben Walton and the BBC Natural History Unit. 

It was the rising incidence of human-baboon conflict that the project set out to document. In 2017, Leah Findley and Russel Hill, two other authors of the recently published study, collaborated with a team at the BBC for the documentary Animals with Cameras. As part of the film, the team deployed four collar cameras on chacma baboons in South Africa’s Limpopo province, where farmers had lost crops to baboons.

“The original intention was to film them doing this, but, of course, animals don’t tend to do anything you expect them to do, and they didn’t actually go into the fields while these cameras were recording,” Walton said.

While the gathered footage was used in the documentary, it was only years later that Walton decided to go back and comb through it again for other insights. For the study, he analyzed videos captured by two of the four cameras that were originally deployed.

Both the baboons on which the cameras were attached were found to consume feces of many different species of antelopes. One baboon was found to be “selective in which individual feces were consumed,” according to the study. The video showed the animal breaking open the feces and inspecting the contents before either eating them or throwing them away.

Walton said he was surprised by the lack of diversity in the baboon’s diet, especially in the dry season when they tracked the animals. “One of the reasons they might be feeding on antelope droppings is because there’s not a lot of natural vegetation at that time of the year,” he said. “It suggests that the dry season might be quite hard for them.”

The cameras also documented the baboons’ interactions with other animals, such as the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo), impala (Aepyceros melampus) and nyala (Tragelaphus angasii).

“The baboons were getting very close to these animals,” Walton said. “If you were following habituated baboons, you might have scared off these other species and wouldn’t see these interactions.”

While the findings are fascinating, Walton said, the main takeaway from the study was how cameras attached to animals can aid researchers in understanding the inner lives of animals better. While his study focused on foraging behavior and interspecies interactions, he said it could also be used to get other insights.

“They could also tell us about social behavior such as interactions between different baboons,” Walton said, “and what’s gaining the primates’ attention, because we are getting a first-person perspective.”

Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @AbhishyantPK.

Banner image: A chacma baboon in Zambia. Image by flowcomm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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Citation:

Walton, B. J., Findlay, L. J., & Hill, R. A. (2024). On-primate cameras reveal undocumented foraging behaviour and interspecies interactions in chacma baboons (Papio ursinus). International Journal of Primatology. doi:10.1007/s10764-024-00423-9

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