From the field!

January 2022 (Joyce Mkola)
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In January's entry, Joyce Mkola writes about baboon motherghood (photo: K. van Leeuwen/GMERC)

Hello readers ….

      I am Joyce Mkola am a holder of Bachelor degree in wildlife management. I have been an intern at GMERC from 31stJanuary 2020 to 31stDecember 2021. During my internship I participated in several elements of the Project, from behavioural data collection to deploying camera traps. While I was at GMERC I was afforded the opportunity to work with wild primates in the Issa valley: yellow baboons, chimpanzees, and red tailed monkeys. Eventually I focused on the baboons and especially their feeding behavior.

     Yellow baboons are medium sized and widely distributed across E Africa. They live in groups of varying size. During my time with ‘camp troop’ at Issa I observed many fascinating things but one that captured my eye was the way one female exhibited her parental strategy with her infants. This female was none other than Janet, an older and high ranking female.

Janet is known to be a mother to four offspring and the suspected mother of two others. Evolutionarily, she is ‘successful’ for the number of fledged offspring, but even more so given the high rate of infant mortality in this troop. In the short period before my arrival and including my one year there, there were seven infant births and two infant deaths. Just surviving infanthood is a success here! 

     I cannot be sure what drives these frequent infant deaths (no evidence of disease outbreaks or human pressure), but watching Janet prompted me to consider the role of mother care. For instance, it was normal for a baboon mother to leave her infant at some long distance while she is foraging, but it was rare to find Janet leave more than a few steps from her offspring. Comparatively, Janet remained spatially closer to her kids, which in turn may have translated to improved survival.

     Janet is an inspiring mother and grandmother. We know of three of her offspring – all survived to adulthood – and now her first grand-offspring! I now wonder if her daughters will emulate their own infant care after their model mother! 

At numerous times did I see Janet even extend this care to others’ offspring, even seeming to push infants closer to their moms. Once, Janet approached a crying infant, who was a few meters from her mom (Godshaka). Janet carried the infant to Godshaka, who refused to stop foraging, seemingly ignoring the crying infant. Janet continued to implore Godshaka to carry the baby by placing it even on Godshaka`s belly while holding Godshaka so that she couldn’t avoid the baby. Eventually Godshaka held her infant, carrying her away. This was really one of my favorite scenes while being with the baboons.

     There are numerous tendencies about Janet and how she looks after her infants. The way she carries them, the way she nurtures them, how she grooms them, and the way she plays with them...they only reinforce my sense that Janet didn’t get lucky that her infants survived.

     I used to think it was impossible to know what type of mother a young female baboon will be. In the troop there are other, less vigilant females, those who spend far less time vigilant or close to their kids. There is, however, future Janets in the making. One sub adult female -Nyeupe- seems that she will follow the baboon-prints of Janet in being an outstanding mother. Nyeupe hasn’t yet given birth to her first offspring but she spends much of her time looking after others’ infants. It is normal for Nyeupe to run and carry a crying baby if they are ignored by their moms and because of this tendency, we gave her the nickname of “dada huruma”, or sister sympathy. I hope in the future that Dada Huruma will become a great mom, too. 

     I left GMERC last month, and with my departure coincided with another opportunity for Janet to display her mothering. Her youngest infant – Jau – is now just four months old. I will miss watching her and learning from her...and studying the different ways that baboons mother!