History of the Project

The Amboseli Baboon Project is a long-term, coordinated series of studies of yellow baboons, Papio cynocephalus, in the Amboseli region of East Africa, immediately north and west of Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Project has long centered on processes at the individual, group, and population levels, and in recent years has also included other aspects of baboon biology, such as genetics, hormones, and nutrition, hybridization, and relations with other species. Financial support for the Project has, at various times, come from a number of sources, especially the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Chicago Zoological Society.

The Project was initiated by Stuart Altmann and Jeanne Altmann in 1963-64. That study and a brief follow-up in 1969 laid the groundwork for the series of studies that followed and that continue to this day. As of the end of 2000, some 50 investigators have worked on field or analysis and modeling aspects of the project at various times. Here are some major transitions in the history of the project.

1963-64. After surveying many potential research sites in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, the Altmanns set up camp for a year in Amboseli. Baboon Ecology [4], the book that resulted, provided a description and analysis of baboon natural history. It provided the impetus and background for many of the ecological studies that followed.

1969. During a brief study in the summer of 1969, the Altmanns realized that major changes in the habitat were underway as were changes in the population of baboons and other species [23, 64, 108]. Census of marked trees was initiated.

1971. This year marked the beginning of continuous research on Amboseli baboons, made possible by a coordinated series of collaborating investigators through the years. Since then, detailed studies throughout the lifetime of individually identified animals have provided the research core of the Project and have been combined with the broad monitoring of the baboon population and its ecology. The individually based life-history studies, starting with Glen Hausfater’s study of male dominance and reproduction [13] focused on a single baboon group, Alto’s Group.

1974. David Post began a year-long study of habitat composition and feeding behavior. It was part of a series of studies devoted to ecological, nutritional, and behavioral aspects of baboon foraging [4, 11, 18, 19, 20, 30, 39, 52, 61, 65, 75, 80, 84, 86, 92, 100, 106, 117, 129, 135].

1980. This year marked the extension of detailed life-history research to a second study group, Hook’s Group, beginning with Michael Pereira’s investigation of juvenile life stages [73].

1981. Raphael Mututua began his association with the Project as a research assistant; a decade later, Raphael became the project manager as well as senior field worker.

1984. This year marked several milestones. Jeanne began an ongoing association with the Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, as a part of the Zoo’s Department of Conservation Biology. Brookfield has contributed support to the Project particularly for training of Kenyan scientists, such as Philip Muruthi, and for investigating human-wildlife interactions in a changing environment. We initiated comparative studies of Lodge Group, a baboon group that augmented their foraging on wild foods with refuse that they found at the dump of a tourist lodge near their sleeping trees. The first of the Lodge Group studies were conducted with Philip as part of his undergraduate and master’s theses at the University of Nairobi [92, 107]. Susan Alberts also began her long-term association with the Project this year.

1986. In response to changing ecological conditions in Amboseli, Hook’s and Alto’s Groups shifted habitat and daily activities, gradual processes that were most clear this year, [129].

1989. To initiate an exciting series of investigations into genetic structure of the population [129, 137, 128] and physiology [111, 113, 117, 134], we made a brief departure from our totally ‘hands off’ policy. In collaboration with Robert Sapolsky and several other colleagues who conducted laboratory analyses, we collected blood samples, took physical measurements, and collected data on parasites. Serah Sayialel joined the Project this year as part of the field team.

1991. Alto’s Group completed a group fission this year, a slow process that resulted in three groups. In subsequent years, Hook’s Group and then Lodge Group also fissioned, more quickly that Alto’s Group had done, into two new groups in each case.

1995. The third full-time member of the Amboseli field team, Kinyua Warutere joined the Project. While posing considerable logistic challenges, the group fission and change in home ranges of groups provided a rich opportunity for us to initiate studies relating group and individual processes. By adding another team member and vehicle we were able to begin to capitalize on that opportunity. With collaborators, we also began evaluating and further developing new techniques for extracting and using DNA from feces to enable a range of genetic investigations.

2000. In 2000, we began to monitor physiology through non-invasive fecal collection and analysis of steroid hormones extracted from the feces, thus considerably enhancing our ability to study mechanisms of social behavior, development and aging, and the baboons' response to environmental change and variability, without disturbing sensitive behavioral processes. As with non-invasive DNA sampling, methods refinement and testing is an essential pre-requisite to implementation of these emerging techniques.