Monkeying Around with Chacmas in South Africa
For many college students, few places seem as exotic or far-flung as Africa; but for OWU seniors Ariel Hively and Tessa Cannon, it was a destination offering an exciting opportunity to gain valuable experience in their academic majors in zoology.
Last summer, the two students volunteered at C.A.R.E. (Centre for Animal Rehabilitation and Education) in Phalaborwa, South Africa. The Centre’s primary goal is to take in orphaned baby baboons and raise them with other baboons of their ages in groups called troops. Then, they release the troops back into the wild.
“C.A.R.E. is the first rehabilitation center to successfully release baboons back into the wild,” says Hively.
And so, every day for a month, the girls woke early to play with the baby baboons.
“Even if you went into the hok clean at the beginning of your shift you were guaranteed to come out of it looking much more disgusting, but it was definitely worth it,” says Cannon. In the area, baboons are considered vermin, so farmers often shoot them down just for being on the property, leaving plenty of baby baboons without parents to care for them. These babies are then brought in to C.A.R.E. by locals, where volunteers act as surrogate mothers until the baboons are old enough to join a troop.
“They are really just like little kids. I developed bonds and relationships with all of them,” says Hively.
Hively and Cannon were able to make this happen thanks to an OWU Theory-to-Practice grant awarded by Ohio Wesleyan.
“The hardest part was getting the money to go,” says Hively. “We started fundraising in the summer of 2010 by making a blog, a Facebook page, henna tattoos, and having a benefit band night in Ithaca, New York, where Cannon is from.” After more than a year of fundraising, they decided to go for one of the University grants, commonly known as TiPiTs. They spent weeks drafting and re-drafting a research proposal for a project they would do while volunteering, explaining what they were doing and why it was unique and important. “We were determined to raise the money even if we didn’t receive the grant, but luckily we received TIPIT money from the University, which took a huge load off of our shoulders,” says Hively.
The two friends decided to perform a research project while at the Centre so that they would have data to bring back and present at Ohio Wesleyan. They chose the topic based on something Cannon learned about in a zoology class: pre-existing sensory bias for the color red. “Baboons are among the primates that possess trichromatic color vision which means that they can tell the different between some colors, most importantly red and green,” says Cannon. “Female Chacma baboons, along with many other species, get swellings that are red in color during their time of estrous, as a sort of signal to males that they are ready to mate, and the females with the brightest, largest swellings would seem more appealing to males.” The idea of the project was to test if this bias was strictly for sexual selection or if it applied to other aspects of baboon life as well, in which case it would be pre-existing and due to other evolutionary factors.
To test this, they gave the baboons pairs of identical objects, one painted red, one painted green.
“We observed which colored object was picked up first, which colored object was handled the most, and how many fights occurred over each colored object to find that there were significantly more fights over the red objects than the green objects, and more time was spent with the red objects than the green objects,” explains Hively. A critical part of the study was that all these baboons were orphans, and so not influenced by the behaviors of adult baboons around them. Cannon’s and Hively’s conclusion: “Chacma baboons do have a preexisting bias to the color red that is not linked to sexual selection.”
Besides their independent research project, Cannon and Hively had responsibilities to the Centre. “We went to C.A.R.E. first and foremost to gain experience in our field, since we are both zoology majors,” explains Cannon. “We spent most of our days there looking after the baby baboon troops, since most of the babies that they had there were orphans. We also helped with food preparation for the babies and the adult baboons, so we learned a lot about animal care as well as animal behavior.” For both of them, playing with the babies was their favorite part of it all. “It was so interesting to be able to learn all of their behaviors and interact with them through their own language of ‘play faces’ and ‘lipsmacks,’” says Cannon.
“Once I sat down, at least three of them went down my collar and in my shirt and they would sleep or sit on my lap and groom my hair and face,” reminisces Hively, laughing.
After such an amazing experience, Cannon and Hively are both excited to go back to the Centre, though graduate school is hopefully on the horizon. Neither of them could be more grateful for the amazing experience they had, but also for the feeling of knowing they were making a difference in the world, and making a difference in the lives of these baboons. Says Hively, “Everything about being in South Africa and at C.A.R.E. was amazing, but nothing can compare to the great feeling I got from sitting in the enclosure with the baby baboons.”