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7th February 2011, 3:07pm
Endangered macaque species could hold fresh clues to origins of altruism in humans
A Barbary Macaque Researchers are studying the complex politics of a rare species of macaque to gain new insights into how altruistic traits evolved in primate and human societies.

An international team of primatologists, psychologists and social anthropologists, led by the UK’s University of Lincoln, has established a successful field site in a mountainous region of Morocco where they are observing three troops of Barbary Macaque in the wild.

They believe this endangered primate, whose numbers have declined dramatically in the past 30 years, could offer precious clues as to how and why different aspects of society developed in social species.

The project involves researchers from the universities of Lincoln (UK), Roehampton (UK), Gottingen (Germany) and Gent (Belgium), along with Morocco’s Ecole Nationale Forestière d’Ingénieurs.

They are investigating various elements of the Barbary Macaque’s socio-ecology, including conflict resolution, the impact of food availability on stress levels and social relationships, and the competition and co-operation that occurs when different troops cross paths.

Their studies have already revealed interesting parallels between macaque and human society – from the perils of over-indulging on junk food, to the underhand tactics males will employ to usurp their rivals in wooing a mate. The work promises to offer deeper insights into the origins of behaviours critical to preserving harmonious relationships in complex societies.

“Research into macaques can be really useful in understanding the evolution of society in primates and other social species,” said Dr Bonaventura Majolo, a psychologist from the University of Lincoln who established the field site. “That’s because macaques show such variation in habitat use and social systems. Studying these variations can help us to answer questions about how human society compares to the social organisation of other social species.”

The Barbary Macaque is an ancestral species of macaque and the only one left in Africa. It is native to just a few mountainous, wooded regions of Morocco and Algeria, and is also found in Gibraltar, where it was probably introduced by traders centuries ago.

Most macaque species are found in South East Asia or Japan, separated from their ancestral cousins by the last Ice Age. This geographical split and the different ecological pressures faced by macaque species are thought to have driven changes in dominance style and behaviour.

For instance, the Japanese Macaque is classified as a ‘despotic species’, meaning troop members establish a strict dominance hierarchy. In such species, the outcome of aggressive confrontations between two animals can be predicted by their dominance status: dominant individuals always defeat subordinates. Grooming, one of the most important ways in which primates establish and maintain friendly relationships, is heavily biased towards relatives in the same troop.

The Barbary Macaque, by contrast, is considered a ‘tolerant species’ where the dominance hierarchy is shallower. That means the status of an animal is not so easily detected. Dominant individuals will occasionally lose fights with subordinates and grooming is less biased towards relatives.

Although there have been studies of the Barbary Macaque in captivity, very little research has ever been conducted in the wild. Wild populations of the species have dropped from around 70,000 in the mid-1970s to as little as 5,000 today and it is classed as endangered on the IUCN Red List.

“The Barbary Macaque is under real threat from habitat destruction, logging and other human activities, such as the theft of infants for the pet trade. It’s really important we study it before it disappears altogether from the wild,” said Dr Majolo, whose current research focuses on the causes and consequences of altruism, competition and reconciliation in macaque society.

He believes that examining how conflicts are resolved within and between groups of macaques may reveal clues as to why some species, including humans, feel the need to patch up their differences after fights.

Dr Majolo said: “Reconciliation is observed in several social species and it seems to be important when there’s a need to establish and maintain friendly relationships. In macaques, the quality of relationship between individuals seems to affect conflict management, or post-conflict behaviour, and this is consistent with other species. It’s also true of chimpanzees and even human children. It appears that the closer the relationship between individuals, the more effort is put into resolving conflict.
“Looking at what factors affect reconciliation in primates might help tell us why this mechanism to manage conflict evolved and whether it requires a species to have complex cognitive abilities.”

Follow the researchers’ progress on their Barbary Macaque Blog:

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