Are baboons savvy shoppers?

Tuesday 30 January 2007

As the January sales draw to a close, scientists have revealed that humans are not alone in their ability to hunt for bargains.

The researchers at the University of St Andrews have discovered that baboons are also skilled shoppers with the ability to plan ahead and shop around for a good deal.

Dr Rahel Noser and Professor Richard Byrne of the University’s School of Psychology witnessed baboons in South Africa apparently planning ‘shopping trips’ (in the baboons’ case, hunting for food) by comparing the best available goods on offer before selecting the best route to take to get to them. Cleverly, the primates used their imagination to consider what else might be available in other areas of the woodland before making their choice. The new finding disputes previous theories that only humans can imagine things that are ‘out of sight’ and ‘in the future’.

Dr Noser said, “Baboons are evidently able to compare different possible places in their imagination, which means that they can plan ahead and choose a route that is efficient in getting to their next place to visit.”

Using GPS technology to plot baboon routes in precise detail, the researchers observed groups foraging in the dry woodland of Blouberg Nature Reserve, South Africa. They calculated how efficiently, in terms of straightness of route, and how quickly the baboons travelled. Importantly, the researchers were careful to note all possible ways in which direct environmental stimuli might be guiding the animals.

When times were tough, in the dry season, or when approaching very valuable resources, the baboons took very direct paths to scarce fruits and waterholes far out of possible sight, let alone smell. They travelled rapidly and by- passed less desirable foods, which they consumed only later on the way back. This observation implies that the baboons had a detailed knowledge of what is found where – a ‘cognitive map’ – and when best to visit particular places. For instance, it’s best to visit ripe figs early in the morning, before competitors have had a chance to deplete them, but seeds in other locations are available any time.

Professor Byrne said, “A smart shopper plans their route in advance, deciding which of several shops selling similar goods to visit, and working out the most efficient pathway among the various chosen shops to save time and effort. We may think little of this everyday skill, but it is widely believed that non-human animals cannot imagine what is ‘out of sight’ or ‘in the future’.

“Many researchers have suggested that this kind of skill is beyond the mental capacity of non-human animals, and that their day-to-day foraging is driven only by environmental features they detect directly. For example, they might head for the smell of a tree full of ripe fruit, or the sight of tall trees that indicate water.

“However we found that these African baboons were not only led by external stimuli but were also able to imagine several out-of- sight places, compare what is available at each of them, and choose the route that minimises effort. Some primates, at least, seem to be good shoppers.”

The researchers also considered just how far the baboons’ planning skills could go, for example whether they were able to use their ‘cognitive maps’ to plan short cuts.

Dr Noser explained, “We tend to think of a cognitive map as rather like a real map: but it may not be. An alternative is that long familiarity with their home range has equipped the animals with knowledge of a rich network of routes, interconnecting all the places they know by means of paths they have travelled already. Off the network, they might be lost, but most of the time familiar routes are quite good enough.”

During observations of one group of baboons, the researchers noticed that when they encountered or heard other baboons on their bee-line route to a scarce fruit tree or water hole, they either stopped or retreated off-route. There were cases where baboons back-tracked to the original route when the coast was clear, cases where they followed another familiar route leading to the goal location, and cases where they gave up and went somewhere else altogether. But in no case did the baboons manage to take the shortest route to their original goal on a new line altogether.

Professor Byrne concluded, “Baboons do not seem to have anything much like a real ‘map in the head’, rather their knowledge is an interconnected network of well- known paths. They apparently see the African bush as if it were rich tangle of familiar streets.”



The research is published in vol. 73 of Animal Behaviour (published online, ref DOI:10.1016/j.anbehav.2006.04.012), with another related paper due in Animal Cognition.


DR RAHEL NOSER, EMAIL [email protected]




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