There are always surprises looming in the study of animal behavior. Just this week I learned that rare and critically endangered Ethiopian wolves living in the alpine grasslands form a pact with gelada baboons that helps the wolves catch rodents.
In an essay called “Monkeys’ cosy alliance with wolves looks like domestication (link is external)” by Bob Holmes in New Scientist we learn that “wolves succeeded in 67 per cent of attempts [to catch rodents] when within a gelada herd, but only 25 per cent of the time when on their own.” However, it’s not clear what makes the wolves more successful but it’s possible that hiding out in the herd is beneficial for these predators. (The title of Mr. Holmes’ essay in the print edition of New Scientist is titled “Wolves hang out with monkeys to hunt.”)
Mr. Holmes’ summary is based on a report by Dartmouth College’s Vivek Venkataraman and his colleagues titled “Solitary Ethiopian wolves increase predation success on rodents when among grazing gelada monkey herds (link is external)” published in the Journal of Mammalogy. The abstract of this study reads: “Mixed-species associations generally form to increase foraging success or to aid in the detection and deterrence of predators. While mixed-species associations are common among mammals, those involving carnivorous predators and potential prey species are seldom reported. On the Guassa Plateau, in the Ethiopian highlands, we observed solitary Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis) foraging for rodents among grazing gelada monkey (Theropithecus gelada) herds. The tolerant and sometimes prolonged (> 1h) associations contrasted with the defensive behaviors exhibited by geladas toward other potential predators. Ethiopian wolves spent a higher proportion of time foraging and preyed more successfully on rodents when among geladas than when alone, providing evidence that gelada herds increase the vulnerability of subterranean rodents to predation. Ethiopian wolves appear to habituate gelada herds to their presence through nonthreatening behavior, thereby foregoing opportunistic foraging opportunities upon vulnerable juvenile geladas in order to feed more effectively on rodents. For Ethiopian wolves, establishing proximity to geladas as foraging commensals could be an adaptive strategy to elevate foraging success. The novel dynamics documented here shed light on the ecological circumstances that contribute to the stability of mixed groups of predators and potential prey.”
What’s very interesting is that the wolves don’t prey on the vulnerable baboons. To wit, “Only once has Venkataraman seen a wolf seize a young gelada, and other monkeys quickly attacked it and forced it to drop the infant, then drove the offending wolf away and prevented it from returning later.”
What I also found to be of interest is the speculation that the association between the wolves and the baboons resembled early moments in the domestication of dogs by humans. In a sidebar to the above essay called “Taming man’s best friend,” University of Oxford conservation biologist Claudio Sillero “doubts that the relationship could progress further down the road to domestication” because there is no reciprocal benefit for the baboons. Nonetheless, the association between the wolves and baboons is extremely interesting and “unlikely friendships (link is external)” such as these might be more common than we have previously imagined among wild animals. (For more on the domestication of dogs please see essays published by Psychology Today writer Mark Derr, an expert on this topic.)
Please stay tuned for more on the fascinating lives of the magnificent animals with whom we share our wondrous planet. There still is much to learn and there always are “surprises” looming on the horizon.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation, Why dogs hump and bees get depressed, and Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence.