“In any animal society, females are as important or more important than males”

“In any animal society, females are as important or more important than males”


The BBVA Foundation awards its Frontiers of Knowledge Award to three pioneering scientists in studying the social behavior of primates and other species

A 10-day-old female baboon hugs her mother.Ariel ShalitAP Photo

In 1963, shortly after graduating from the University of Alberta with a degree in Mathematics, Jeanne Altmann traveled for the first time to the Amboseli National Parkin Kenya, where he discovered the baboons living in the reserve that would eventually become the focus of his research.

He returned in 1971 to found a project that has become a benchmark in the study of these primates, still active five decades later. In fact, the Amboseli baboon research project has tracked approximately 2,000 individuals over several generations.

The primatologist Susan Alberts joined the initiative in 1983, beginning a 40-year collaboration between the two scientists, pioneers in the behavioral study of these primates. It is a field of research that has served to unravel the different aspects of baboon social behavior and its role in evolution.

The two researchers, in the company of the biologist Marlene Zukwere recognized yesterday with the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award, in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category, for their outstanding contribution to the behavioral and evolutionary ecology of animals.

The jury’s minutes also highlight the importance of behavior as the primary means that individuals use to respond and adapt to constantly changing conditions, including changes in their social environment. In addition, it underlines the fundamental contributions of these three scientists to develop conservation strategies in threatened species.

Our research has contributed to the understanding that the social environment is just as important as the physical one in determining health and survival, both for the primates we have studied and for many other organisms that are highly social creatures, Alberts adds. That means the animals solve problems in their environment through social behavior and that the different ways in which they do so reflect the multiple solutions that have been found to these challenges over millennia of evolution.

The three winners have shown through their research the importance of social interaction in health, which in turn has an impact on the evolution of species. For example, Susan Alberts and Jeanne Altmann deduced from their work that baboons with stronger social ties tend to have a longer life expectancy and, in the case of females, are associated with better pup survival rates. Marlene Zuk, for her part, has explored how interactions between males and females, as well as those that occur between parasites and hosts, influence mate choice.

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Through their observations, Susan Alberts and Jeanne Altmann also demonstrated the role that males play in caring for their young, contrary to what was previously believed. In this sense, advances in DNA studies in recent decades were essential to demonstrate their discoveries: they made it possible to verify that these primates -both male and female- they mate with several partners, while males are able to identify their own young and provide care for them.

At the same time, the important role of females in animal societies has been a constant in his research: There were much bibliography that said that the only relevant thing was the big males and their dominance, but we showed pretty early on that females and their relationships were especially important, Altmann says.

Thus, they verified that females have as relevant a function as males when it comes to determining social processes, and that They can go from being allies to competitors and vice versa. on very short time scales, a characteristic feature of any complex society.

All these discoveries have contributed to the evolution of the vision on the roles of the different sexes in fields such as biology or anthropology. The perspective on gender has changed dramatically in science in the last 50-60 years, accompanying the increase in knowledge, explains Alberts. Specifically, the vision of how gender works, with the idea that gender roles are part of a continuum and that the role of females in any animal society is as important – or, in some cases, more – than that of males.

On the other hand, the investigations of Marlene Zuk have been key to understanding the relevance of parasites in the social behavior of animals. It used to be thought that all these organisms did was carry disease, she recalls. But in reality, they play a role not only in determining whether we get sick, but with regard to the organisms in which they are hosted: how they choose their partners, how they interact with each other… Because avoiding parasites and diseases has been a prime mover of evolution.

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