Oct 31, 2020

How to Win Friends and Influence Baboons

Baboon troops. We all know they’re hierarchical. There’s the big brutish alpha male who rules with a hairy iron fist, and then there’s everybody else. Which is what Meg Crofoot thought too, before she used GPS collars to track the movements of a troop of baboons for a whole month. What she and her team learned from this data gave them a whole new understanding of baboon troop dynamics, and, moment to moment, who really has the power. 

This episode was reported and produced by Annie McEwen.

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JAD ABUMRAD: Hey. It's Jad. So an election is happening. I don't know if you heard. And today and in a few days from now, we have two quick releases for you that sort of look at the big day from a variety of different angles. And as you might have heard, we also have two new co-hosts here at RADIOLAB, Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser. And they're going to take these two on their own. I will see you, hear you, talk to you on the other side.

 [RADIOLAB INTRO]

LATIF NASSER: Join audio - there you go.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Hello.

LATIF NASSER: Aha. Hi. How are you doing?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Hi.

LATIF NASSER: Welcome back. Hey. I'm Latif Nasser. This is RADIOLAB. And today we've got a story from our producer, Annie McEwen.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK.

LATIF NASSER: So you just came back from a vacation.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yes.

LATIF NASSER: I just came back from paternity leave. And this is really - like, I don't know anything about this story. I think you must have pitched this while I was gone. And so...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah.

LATIF NASSER: This is great. Like, this is literally the first thing I'm doing. So it's, like...

ANNIE MCEWEN: That's nice.

LATIF NASSER: I'm really coming at this - I don't know anything.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Well, OK. So I guess when I pitched this, I was just - I don't know. I was just in this, like - I am ready to hear about someone other than humans. I'm just a little overwhelmed with humanity right now. And so the story I have for you today is an animal story.

LATIF NASSER: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But, of course, except - hello.

MEG CROFOOT: Hi.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Hi, Meg. How are you?

MEG CROFOOT: I'm doing well. How are you, Annie?

ANNIE MCEWEN: To talk about animals, I need a human to help me.

MEG CROFOOT: I'm in my office. The door is closed. There's a sign not to knock. So...

ANNIE MCEWEN: So that human is Meg Crofoot.

MEG CROFOOT: And I study the behavior of wild animals for a living.

ANNIE MCEWEN: She is a director at the Max Planck Institute and a prof at the University of Konstanz.

MEG CROFOOT: It is an awesome job.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Loves her job.

MEG CROFOOT: I do.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And so the reason I was drawn to her is because her work with animals tackles this really deep question.

MEG CROFOOT: How groups reach consensus and achieve collective goals despite potentially conflicting interests of the individuals in the group.

LATIF NASSER: OK, that's a little - hold on. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

MEG CROFOOT: That's a lot.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MEG CROFOOT: So simply, like, how does a group of animals - each of them with their own fears, their own needs, their own desires - how do they somehow, despite that, come together, make a decision and move forward?

LATIF NASSER: Right. Yeah. This doesn't sound relevant to humans at all. This sounds actually entirely disconnected from anything going on in the world or this country. You know what I mean?

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter) OK, this actually is an animal story...

LATIF NASSER: OK.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Because when Meg was, like, first starting to approach this...

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...She was spending her time on a little island off the coast of Panama...

MEG CROFOOT: Chasing capuchin monkeys around the jungle.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Watching the ways that we compete with each other - chasing each other out of this tree, trying to stand their ground on that rock - which, she says, was infuriating.

MEG CROFOOT: You know, they're housecat-sized black things just hidden behind leaves and branches, and they're moving fast.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And she'd be sitting there like, OK, I see the monkey. Oh, where'd it go? Wait. There's - wait. Is that the same monkey? Where did that first one go? Ah.

MEG CROFOOT: Ah. You can't keep track of what everybody's doing.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah, that seems impossible.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right? Totally - until one day, Meg heard about this totally new way of approaching this problem.

MEG CROFOOT: I was sitting in this lecture hall in Panama City at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. There was a weekly seminar, this sort of afternoon of science.

ANNIE MCEWEN: She's sitting in this lecture hall, and she's watching this Israeli scientist named Ran Nathan give a talk on his work tracking bats. He put a tiny GPS backpack on a bat, set it free and was able to track its movements really, really closely.

MEG CROFOOT: One GPS point per second. And so you had this amazing detail of this bat...

ANNIE MCEWEN: This little red dot on a map.

MEG CROFOOT: ...Waking up and leaving its roost and flying out across the Israeli desert. And you could see it going up in the air and down in the air and following roads and following lights and then coming to this fruit tree in the middle of nowhere and then eating in that fruit tree and then flying back. But just the detail of it - and I remember sitting there in this seminar room and just being like, wow. Imagine what you could know if you could put these kinds of instruments on an entire group of primates.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Not just follow one animal to a tree and back but actually be able to see how a bunch of animals move at the same time and interact with each other in space.

MEG CROFOOT: It would give you a whole new way of seeing their world and seeing what they were doing and understanding how they were influencing each other's behavior. It really felt like sort of the same way I kind of imagined somebody staring for the first time through a microscope - I mean, rather than a microscope, a macroscope - but having this whole new way of accessing the world.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right.

MEG CROFOOT: It was this moment that just felt so full of potential.

ANNIE MCEWEN: That day, that lecture...

MEG CROFOOT: Totally changed the course of what I was doing scientifically.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So she spent time gathering funding and choosing the perfect primate for this project.

MEG CROFOOT: The answer is baboons.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK. Well, had you worked with baboons before in your...

MEG CROFOOT: No.

ANNIE MCEWEN: No, never.

MEG CROFOOT: I had never seen a baboon. I guess I had seen a baboon.

ANNIE MCEWEN: At a bar one time (laughter).

MEG CROFOOT: Yeah, exactly. We had a drink. It was casual.

LATIF NASSER: Why? Why would then you pick this animal to study out of all the animals that you could've picked?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Well, partly it was logistics.

MEG CROFOOT: Forest canopy cover disrupts the GPS signals.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And baboons live out in the open. They're also big enough to wear the heavy GPS collars that Meg was planning to use. But also, and I think maybe more significantly, baboons are a super-well-studied animal. Like, we already know a lot about them. We already know a lot about how their troops work. And they are notorious for sticking together. Like, every day, these groups of 30 to 50 baboons - big, little, male, female, lower-ranking, higher-ranking - they move through the landscape together.

MEG CROFOOT: As a cohesive unit.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And at some level, they must...

MEG CROFOOT: Decide where to go together.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And Meg's question was how.

MEG CROFOOT: Right.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So she gets on a plane and heads to Kenya.

MEG CROFOOT: You land in Nairobi, and Nairobi is a big, bustling city.

ANNIE MCEWEN: She and her team head out to the Impala Research Center in this massive wildlife conservancy that's just filled with...

MEG CROFOOT: So many big animals.

ANNIE MCEWEN: They're driving past giraffes and hyenas and zebras and elephants.

MEG CROFOOT: Finally, you're out in this plateau. It looks out at Mount Kenya. It's a really beautiful, beautiful landscape.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And it was here that she saw what she came for.

MEG CROFOOT: Baboons.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Olive baboons, troops of them roaming the savanna.

MEG CROFOOT: Sort of a sandy brown color.

ANNIE MCEWEN: They have longish noses like a dog, a heavy brow.

MEG CROFOOT: The males - they've got big, bushy manes all over the shoulders and back and head and big canines.

ANNIE MCEWEN: They're about the size of a German shepherd.

MEG CROFOOT: And the females are a lot smaller.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And when they're in heat, they get these, like, big...

MEG CROFOOT: Pink, glossy...

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Butts.

MEG CROFOOT: It looks so uncomfortable.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Anyway, troops of these olive baboons are roaming the savanna. And after a couple of weeks of scoping them out...

MEG CROFOOT: We eventually settled on a troop that slept pretty consistently in the set of trees along the river.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ANNIE MCEWEN: So to make a long story short, Meg and her team set some traps beneath those trees and started catching and collaring these baboons.

LATIF NASSER: It's like a dog collar, or it's like a...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah, it's like a fancy computer dog collar.

LATIF NASSER: Got it.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So they do this until they get 25 baboons collared.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah. And 25 out of how many?

MEG CROFOOT: It's about 40 animals, and about 25-ish were big enough to wear collars.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So a few days later, all together, the collars flick on and start collecting data.

MEG CROFOOT: One GPS point per second. And then we were collecting continuous accelerometry readings.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Each of their movements minutely tracked for one whole month. Then the collars pop off.

How many, like, data points is that?

MEG CROFOOT: Twenty million GPS points and 30 times that many accelerometry points.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, my God.

MEG CROFOOT: Yeah, just this sea of data.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So all of these numbers just start popping up on a computer screen. And at this point, it's just numbers. But what she's hoping those numbers can tell her is, again, how do these baboons - and maybe they have differences of opinion or whatever - how do they make decisions about what to do or where to go?

MEG CROFOOT: And just from looking at the data, you could tell it was there - everything I could have ever wanted to see. But we still haven't solved the problem. How do you understand who is influencing whom in all of this data? How do we understand how the movements of one baboon are impacting its groupmates?

DAMIEN FARINE: OK, how's that?

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: Check, check.

MEG CROFOOT: And so that's sort of where Damien and Ari came in.

DAMIEN FARINE: So I'm Damien Farine.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: Hi. I am Ari Strandburg-Peshkin. I am a human.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Damien is also a human.

DAMIEN FARINE: Yeah, 100%.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Anyway, Ari and Damien are two biologists at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior.

DAMIEN FARINE: Luckily, Ari and I work very well together. We have very complementary skills, and we enjoy working together.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Because they spent the better part of two years trying to figure out how to read this data.

DAMIEN FARINE: Among the very first things we ever did was to actually just create some visualizations of the data. So we just had little dots...

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: All these dots moving around.

DAMIEN FARINE: ...Representing the GPS coordinates of each animal, as if you were looking at it from above and these were baboons walking through an empty landscape.

ANNIE MCEWEN: They decided to color-code them.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: We had these dark blue dots that were adult males.

DAMIEN FARINE: The light blue was the subadult males.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: Red dots were adult females.

DAMIEN FARINE: And light red was the subadult females.

ANNIE MCEWEN: It sounds very pretty.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So now they could see a little better what the baboons are actually doing. In the morning, they're all kind of jumbled on top of each other - pinks and reds and blues. They're in their sleeping tree, and they're just waking up. And the key thing to know about baboons if you don't already is that they're super-hierarchical.

MEG CROFOOT: Males rank above females.

ANNIE MCEWEN: There's an alpha male, of course. The female ranking system is super-complex.

MEG CROFOOT: Top-ranking matriline, second-ranking matriline, third-ranking matriline, fourth-ranking matriline.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow. So in these dots, what Meg and Ari and Damien thought they were going to see was a dark blue, super-alpha male dot, after stretching and, like, rubbing his little dot face and, you know...

LATIF NASSER: Brushing his little dot teeth.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Brushing his little dot teeth, saying hello to his little dot neighbors - for him, that dark blue alpha dot, to come down from the tree and then be followed by the rest of that cloud of multicolored dots. Down, down, down they come. And then that dark blue dot has a thought. We're going to go this way for breakfast. Follow me, everyone. And the dark blue dot moves off, and the rest of the little multicolored dots follow.

LATIF NASSER: Right.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And why not? That sounds like it would be efficient.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But...

MEG CROFOOT: No.

ANNIE MCEWEN: That's not what they saw at all.

MEG CROFOOT: Our initial sets of hypotheses weren't supported in the data.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What they saw was much more like a - it's almost like an amoeba shape. It would sort of, like, bloop (ph) out. And there'd be a couple different colored dots that would move out that way, and then they would come back. And then a few more dots would move over here and then come back before it finally then somehow moved off together. It just totally befuddled them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LATIF NASSER: We're going to take a break. But when we come back, Meg and Damien and Ari are going to investigate this baboon-y blob until they learn exactly how these baboons move forward despite the fact that they all want to go in different directions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LATIF NASSER: Hey. It's Latif Nasser. This is RADIOLAB. We're back with Annie McEwen, who has got Meg and Ari and Damien sitting in front of a computer, staring at a nonsensical blob of little...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Baboon-y dots.

LATIF NASSER: ...Baboon-y dots.

ANNIE MCEWEN: You were looking for who influences who. And the idea was, like, where to go - is that right?

MEG CROFOOT: Right. Yeah, so every day, this troop has to decide, like, how to navigate its landscape and has to reach consensus, which means that somehow some individuals have to sort of move somewhere and others have to decide to follow.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So for those dots, Meg's dots that actually answer this question, she and Ari and Damien had to figure out a way to analyze them. And they came up with this idea that kind of acted as this key that unlocked this hidden pattern. But maybe the easiest way to explain it is to actually tell you about this thing that Damien saw - not on the computer screen, but right in front of him out in the field.

DAMIEN FARINE: One morning, we watched the group sort of as it was leaving the sleeping site, and one of the baboons was walking in our direction and probably walked about 100 meters from the rest of the group.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And then it stopped.

DAMIEN FARINE: And it was standing there - or sitting there on their haunches, as baboons do, declaring its intention to go in this direction. So the group was still milling around in their sleeping trees, and the group was clearly not that interested in coming in this direction. It was not seeing any sort of further movements towards this. So what really struck me is what the baboon did next. It then went to and climbed up a dead tree and sat on top of this dead tree in a way that was clearly intending for it to be more prominent...

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter).

DAMIEN FARINE: ...In the vision, like, more observable by the rest of the group.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow.

DAMIEN FARINE: And he's sitting on the top of this dead tree for, I think, almost 10 minutes...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Really?

DAMIEN FARINE: ...Before eventually giving up and then rejoining the group. And the group went in the different direction.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What give you the sense that it wasn't just climbing the tree because it's an animal and animals do things that don't make sense?

DAMIEN FARINE: You could - at the risk of maybe anthropomorphizing, but - I mean, you could see it had a degree of impatience to it. So, you know, initially, he sort of sat there on the ground. And then it got a bit restless, and then he climbed a tree. And it was very clearly facing the rest of the group...

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter).

DAMIEN FARINE: ...Kind of observing - you know, it was a little bit uphill as well, so it was really observing what the group was doing.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow. Like, just staring down the group? Like, I know you can all see me here (laughter).

DAMIEN FARINE: Yep, exactly.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Now, that baboon in that moment was actually demonstrating two key moves...

MEG CROFOOT: Two different kinds of movement interactions.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...That Meg and Ari and Damien zeroed in on.

MEG CROFOOT: What we called pulls, which was like, I move away and you follow me.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Which is what Damien's baboon tried to do.

MEG CROFOOT: And then anchors, which is, I move away; you don't follow me, so I come back.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Which is what the baboon ended up doing.

MEG CROFOOT: Right.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Another way to think about it is, like...

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: If you imagined two baboons at either end of a Slinky.

ANNIE MCEWEN: OK.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: One moves off...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: ...And that stretches the Slinky. And then another one might follow it, which would be a successful pull, right? Or one moves off, the Slinky kind of stretches, and then ultimately that one comes back.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And that's an anchor.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: Because the other one didn't want to follow or whatever.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Digs its heels in.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: (Laughter) Yeah, maybe.

MEG CROFOOT: And so Ari and Damien wrote these scripts to basically go through these 20 million data points...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh, man.

MEG CROFOOT: ...And pull out all of the pulls and anchors. And that ended up being sort of the base for us to understand the dynamics of this decision-making process.

ANNIE MCEWEN: You know in "The Matrix" when Neo finally realizes that he's the one?

LATIF NASSER: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And then, like, the floor and the walls and even, like, the bad guy in front of him just, like, turn into these, like, moving green numbers, and he just, like, sees in this way that he never could see before? That's how I imagine it. Like, they could all of a sudden see what was happening.

LATIF NASSER: It's like they could see the program - the social programming of the baboon.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Totally.

MEG CROFOOT: Because once you have that sort of base unit, pulls and anchors, you can start to ask questions like, well, what are the characteristics that make one baboon more likely to follow another versus to not follow and to anchor them? What makes a baboon a successful leader?

ANNIE MCEWEN: And it turned out being the alpha guy didn't matter at all.

MEG CROFOOT: The answer wasn't dominance. There was no impactive dominance. The answer wasn't age, sex, class.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And so it took her, like, actually a moment to believe what she was seeing, which was, like, a red dot move away and a blue dot follow. You'd see a pink dot move away and a dark blue dot follow. Like, it didn't matter...

LATIF NASSER: Really?

ANNIE MCEWEN: You didn't - it didn't matter at all who you were. There was no correlation between rank and successfulness of being followed.

MEG CROFOOT: The thing that really did seem to impact whether or not you were successful in influencing the behavior was how they moved.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Really? Do you mean, like, how they walked?

MEG CROFOOT: Mmm hmm. Baboons that moved in this very directed, very straight way...

DAMIEN FARINE: At an intermediate and very constant pace. So they weren't moving fast. They weren't moving slow.

MEG CROFOOT: ...Were much more likely to successfully pull followers than individuals who either moved slower or with more curvy paths.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right. So a young female, low-ranking female, if she moved purposefully in a straight line, the alpha male could just follow her. There would be no...

MEG CROFOOT: Yep.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Really? And you saw that?

MEG CROFOOT: Yeah, we absolutely saw it. So what we found was that every member of the group was able to successfully pull.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Oh.

LATIF NASSER: Wow. Cool. So it's like anybody can be the leader at a - in a given time.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right.

LATIF NASSER: But then what happens if, like, two baboons have different ideas and want to go in different directions?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Great question.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: What we found is that if the direction between those two initiators or those two individuals going out in different directions is - if the angle between those directions is relatively small...

MEG CROFOOT: Within 90 degrees of one another.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Let's say one dot moving to the north and a different dot moving to the east.

ARI STRANDBURG-PESHKIN: Then the follower will tend to average those directions.

MEG CROFOOT: They just sort of compromise. They split the difference. They'll move directly down the center.

LATIF NASSER: At 45 degrees.

ANNIE MCEWEN: At 45 degrees. Yeah. They just move straight in the middle. Like, they literally split the difference. But if two baboons were going, not 90 degrees different but in totally opposite directions, like one dot goes north, one goes south, there's no middle, there's no compromise. And Damien actually said he saw this happen.

DAMIEN FARINE: There were baboons weaving into kind of two different directions, almost 180-degree opposite. And both of these directions started to build up a bit of a consensus.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So there were supporters for each direction, but about the same number of supporters in each direction.

DAMIEN FARINE: That created a bit of a stalemate.

ANNIE MCEWEN: The remaining baboons refused to follow. Like, they just won't budge.

DAMIEN FARINE: And eventually they kind of have to all come back together, regroup and start again.

LATIF NASSER: Really?

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah, they start over. Now, let's say this happens again, two baboons. Let's say one young female heads north and one adult male head south, totally opposite directions. The troop hangs out under the tree for a bit watching. Then a couple of them start to follow one way or the other, but let's say the young female, maybe there's something about the way she moves with purpose. She gets just a couple more baboons to go her way. The rest of the troop under the tree, they look north, they look south, and in the end...

MEG CROFOOT: What we found was this really clear majority rule.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Again and again, the team saw that in these cases, the rest of the baboons are going to get up and go north with the young female that got those couple extra baboons to follow her. And the smaller group that headed south initially, they turn around, head north and rejoin the group.

MEG CROFOOT: Go with whichever direction was preferred by more members of your group.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Even if the smaller group was filled with the highest-ranking males.

MEG CROFOOT: Yeah, even then.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow.

LATIF NASSER: Oh, that's kind of - oh, that makes me like baboons, actually. That's really nice.

ANNIE MCEWEN: It's nice, right? But actually for the baboons, doing it kind of sucks.

DAMIEN FARINE: I remember sort of realizing that it had taken almost 45 minutes to decide...

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wow.

DAMIEN FARINE: ...For the group to get going in the morning. And this was, you know, like any other morning. It wasn't, like, a colder morning or raining or anything. It just seemed to be that the group was completely struggling to come up with a solution to which direction to go.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And this is like - in the morning, they wake up. So basically, they're deciding where to go eat breakfast?

DAMIEN FARINE: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, it's quite striking that they would spend so long making this decision when all those individuals are probably quite hungry. It's not like there's food in the trees where they're sleeping. They really have to move somewhere to get food initially. And so they were paying the cost.

ANNIE MCEWEN: They haven't had a sip of water. They haven't had anything to eat. And they're putting this discussion in front of any of their physical needs.

LATIF NASSER: Forty-five - yeah, that seems like stupidly inefficient. Like, it's like, let's start the day already. Like, let's go. Let's go. Let's go.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Wouldn't it be more efficient if the alpha male was like, let's go over here? We're going. Bye. Like, that would be one minute.

LATIF NASSER: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And actually Meg says that there are conditions under which it can go that direction.

MEG CROFOOT: Right. There's evidence from a different baboon species that high-ranking individuals can tilt group decisions in their favor.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Are you there?

ANDREW KING: I hope so.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Which brings us to Andrew King.

Yay.

ANDREW KING: (Laughter).

ANNIE MCEWEN: Andrew is a biologist at Swansea University. And a few years before Meg, he also did a baboon study. This was with a different species and it was over Namibia.

ANDREW KING: On the edge of the Namib Desert.

ANNIE MCEWEN: And in his study, he and his team left the baboon troop a little gift.

ANDREW KING: Corn kernels.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Bucketfuls of corn kernels.

ANDREW KING: Rake into the sand fairly close to the sleeping site.

ANNIE MCEWEN: After several days, the baboon troop stumbled upon this present. And when they did, the alpha male kind of just went bananas.

ANDREW KING: Run around, chase everybody else off and eat as many as these corn that he could put into his mouth and shuffling around on his bum picking up one, two, left, right, left, right, left, right, putting these corn in.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Meanwhile, the rest of the troop, they just sit and wait.

ANDREW KING: Sit patiently and wait for him to finish.

ANNIE MCEWEN: He does...

LATIF NASSER: What a dick that guy.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...I guess he does let - if anyone is related to him, like, if there are babies that are definitely his babies, he will let some of them eat a little bit of it.

LATIF NASSER: OK. All right.

ANNIE MCEWEN: But, you know, very selfish. And then they put more corn out that night. The next morning, exact same thing happens again. And they do this experiment again and again and again.

ANDREW KING: I think we did it for about 80 days.

ANNIE MCEWEN: What?

Every morning for 80 days, the baboons wake up. They race off, follow the alpha to the patch. They just watch him pig out. And then, finally, they get to go on.

ANDREW KING: He's getting almost all of the food.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yeah.

ANDREW KING: And everybody else gets almost nothing. So we can say if you incentivize the alpha male, he will choose to go there and he will be followed. So you can say that there's been what you would call a despotic decision - one decides, the rest follows, with the alpha male having a big say in what they're doing.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So maybe what's going on here is, like, you know, if the alpha knows that there's some corn right around the corner, he's going to go for it and he's going to pull everyone along with him. But most mornings when he wakes up, he doesn't really know what's out there. And he doesn't know what the best choice is.

MEG CROFOOT: And there's really good evidence that the accuracy of decisions improves with the number of voices that are contributing information into making them.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Like, sort of like, you know, guess the weight of the bowl, you know? Like, the crowd guess...

LATIF NASSER: Wisdom of crowds.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Yes, exactly. Like, they're going to make a better decision because they're all going to have a say.

LATIF NASSER: Right.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Anyway, the point is, you've got these two studies that reach seemingly contradictory conclusions. But according to Meg...

MEG CROFOOT: What's exciting about the intersection between the work that Andrew King has done and that we've done is that in some cases baboons can show a despotic decision-making process even if on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, most of the group decision-making process is very egalitarian, is very shared. And so I think that one of the interesting things - like, I think oftentimes we sort of get this myopic sense of a species being one way or another, that baboons are despotic or they're democratic whereas in fact, like, these are just strategies. Some decisions just have to be made now. For example, if you spotted a leopard and the leopard is running at you, you don't want to sit there and have a long process about, do we want to run left or do you want run right? You just want to go.

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter) Right. Right, right, right, right.

MEG CROFOOT: And so in cases like that...

ANNIE MCEWEN: If a leopard's a real, near threat...

LATIF NASSER: Yeah.

ANNIE MCEWEN: ...Then you're going to go with the despot.

MEG CROFOOT: But then, you know, if you want to decide, OK, are we more likely to find food over the river or up the hill, there isn't perhaps the same time pressure, so you can afford to reach consensus via a more shared process in the interests of reaching a better decision.

ANNIE MCEWEN: So what you see is, like, baboon society can be both despotic and democratic.

MEG CROFOOT: Like, you can hold this multi-potentiality in your hands. To me, the interesting question isn't so much, are baboons egalitarian or are they despotic, but when?

LATIF NASSER: You know, in a way, she did sort of talk about that. Like, it was like, if there's a leopard, then that's the time you want to be, you know - follow the leader, follow the despot.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right.

LATIF NASSER: But then if it's, you know, a lazy Sunday morning and you're going out to brunch with your friends, like, maybe that's time to hear every voice. Maybe that's the time for democracy.

ANNIE MCEWEN: Right, right. Yeah. And I think that's right. But, like, if you're a baboon, most of the things that happen in your day-to-day life are not those two extremes. And I think the question is - and this is what Meg is focusing on moving forward - what's really going on in that middle space? And where is the tipping point? Like, there's some threshold where a group of baboons will go from a situation where they're all just, like, blindly following the tough guy, even if it's against their own interests, to a moment where a baboon - maybe it's the smallest, runtiest (ph) baboon in the troop - stands up and marches with confidence in the direction that they think is right.

LATIF NASSER: To the polls.

ANNIE MCEWEN: (Laughter) Yeah.

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LATIF NASSER: Our story was reported and produced by Annie McEwen, and our fact-checker was Diane Kelly. I'm Latif Nasser. This is RADIOLAB. Thank you for listening.

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STEPHAN: Hi. This is Stephan (ph) phoning from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. RADIOLAB was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design, and Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, David Gebel, Tracie Hunte, Matt Kielty, Tobin Low, Annie McEwen, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster, with help from Shima Oliaee, Sarah Sandbach and Jonny Moens. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris.

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