Sapolsky observes baboons in the wild to determine their ranks, personalities and social affiliations. Then he anesthetizes them with a blowdart to collect blood samples that reveal levels of stress hormones, antibodies, cholesterol and other indicators of health status. So far, most data are from male baboons, as at any given time, 80 percent of the females are pregnant or lactating and cannot be anesthetized without risks.
Sapolsky has found a key to handling stress may be cultivating friendships. Males who spend the most time grooming and being groomed by females who are not in heat (that is, are not of immediate sexual interest) and playing with infants have the lowest levels of stress hormones.
And when keeping calm, perspective helps. Baboons who cannot tell if a situation is a real threat have twice the stress-hormone levels of those who can discern hazards from histrionics. And if a situation poses a real threat, baboons who sit there waiting for a fight have higher stress-hormone levels than those who take control of the situation and strike first. Baboons who cannot tell if they are winning or losing a fight have much higher stress-hormone levels than those who know whether their lots are improving or worsening.
Lastly, rank matters. Top baboons in a stable dominance hierarchy have lower stress-hormone levels than do subordinates. But throwing a new monkey in the mix sends stress hormones soaring as troop members jockey for dominance.
Have you hugged your rat today?
When Sapolsky is not in Africa watching baboons behaving badly, he studies stressed-out rats in his lab at Stanford, where he is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and in the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences. His books include Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, The Trouble with Testosterone and most recently A Primate's Memoir (Scribner, 2001).