Comparing responses to novel objects in wild baboons (Papio ursinus) and geladas (Theropithecus gelada)


Behavioral flexibility is considered by some to be one of the hallmarks of advanced cognitive ability. One measure of behavioral flexibility is how subjects respond to novel objects. Despite growing interest in comparative cognition, no comparative research on neophilia in wild primates has been conducted. Here, we compare responses to novel objects in wild chacma baboons (Papio ursinus) and geladas (Theropithecus gelada). Baboons and geladas are closely related taxa, yet they differ in their ecology and degree of social tolerance: (1) baboons are habitat and dietary generalists, whereas geladas have one of the most specialized primate diets (90% grass); (2) baboons exhibit an aversion toward extra-group individuals, whereas geladas typically exhibit an attraction toward them. Using subjects of all age and sex classes, we examined responses to three different objects: a plastic doll, a rubber ball, and a metal can. Overall, baboon subjects exhibited stronger responses to the objects (greater neophilia and exploration) than gelada subjects, yet we found no evidence that the geladas were afraid of the objects. Furthermore, baboons interacted with the objects in the same way they might interact with a potential food item. Responses were unrelated to sex, but immatures showed more object exploration than adults. Results corroborate novel object research conducted in captive populations and suggest that baboons and geladas have differences in behavioral flexibility (at least in this cognitive domain) that have been shaped by ecological (rather than social) differences between the two species.

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We are grateful to the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Department, the Amhara National Regional State Parks Development and Protection Authority, and the wardens and staff of the Simien Mountains National Park for granting us the permission to conduct this research. We thank the Office of the President and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of the Republic of Botswana for permission to conduct research in the Moremi Reserve. We are grateful to J. Beehner and H. Gelaye for their help with data collection in Ethiopia and to A. Mokupi and J. Nicholson for their help with data collection in Botswana. Funding for the Ethiopia research was provided by the Wildlife Conservation Society (SSF Grant #67250) and the University of Michigan. We thank J. Beehner and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on the manuscript. Funding for the Botswana research was provided by The Ohio State University. This research was approved by institutional Animal Care and Use Committees and adhered to the laws and guidelines of both countries.

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Correspondence to Thore J. Bergman.

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Bergman, T.J., Kitchen, D.M. Comparing responses to novel objects in wild baboons (Papio ursinus) and geladas (Theropithecus gelada). Anim Cogn 12, 63 (2009) doi:10.1007/s10071-008-0171-2

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  • Novel objects
  • Neophilia
  • Exploration
  • Primate
  • Neophobia
  • Theropithecus gelada
  • Papio ursinus
  • Baboon
  • Cognition