In a finding that surprised researchers, a recent three-year study of five baboon groups at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya reveals that baboon fathers overwhelming side with their offspring when intervening in disputes.
The study, which appears in the Sept. 11 issue of the journal Nature, was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Chicago Zoological Society, the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation and the National Geographic Society.
Not that baboons have a bad-dad reputation, but their links to females and immature baboons is rather loose by primate standards. For example, females and males have multiple mating partners, and they do not form permanent bonds with each other.
According to one of the study's authors, biologist Susan Alberts of Duke University, "This means your average male baboon has much less certainty about which kids he fathered than your average male gorilla, for instance."
The fact that paternal care the tendency for males to care for their own offspring runs so strongly through baboons suggests that such care "may be a very ancient evolved trait in the primate lineage," Alberts said.
The study's co-authors include Duke biologist Jason Buchan, University of California at Los Angeles anthropologist Joan B. Silk and Princeton University biologist Jeanne Altmann.
To identify true paternal care in a complex primate society, the project needed to determine paternity for many infants. To do this without disturbing the population meant collecting baboon feces and then, with a protocol adapted from the study of human stools, isolating and comparatively analyzing the DNA within it.
Such genetic information, Altmann said, is essential to know "if what's going on is truly paternal care."