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Tracking Baboons’ Behavior Wins Student Young Naturalist Award

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To prepare for his work at the zoo, Henry studied baboons at the Museum. 

Photo courtesy of Henry.


Henry always loved to observe. “Walking through parks,” he would later reflect, “I have watched squirrels, birds and other animals, always curious to know what their actions meant.”

So when given the chance to monitor the behavior ofhamadryas baboons at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Zoo, 15-year-old Henry grabbed his journal and found a comfortable seat by their glass enclosure. He wanted to know how captive baboons differed from their relatives in the wild and which activities baboons performed most frequently in the zoo. Profiled in a recent New York Times article, Henry’s project, which he describes in the essay Hamadryas Baboons, Papio hamadryas: Captive vs. Wild, earned him a 2011 Young Naturalist Award.

To compare the two groups of baboons, Henry created a checklist of the behaviors described in anthropologist Larissa Swedell’s study of Ethiopian baboons. Henry recorded how often the captive baboons sat, groomed, ate, and walked. Since grooming allows baboons to bond—and return the favor—Henry hypothesized that the zoo animals would groom more than anything else.

According to Henry’s results, the two groups shared 85 percent of their behaviors. Though the captive baboons didn’t perform any new actions, they lacked certain aggressive and sexual behaviors seen in their Ethiopian counterparts. Henry also found that sitting—not grooming—was the most common activity of zoo baboons. The warm weather or the size of their enclosure may have inhibited their movement, he reasoned.

Henry—who is also a student in the Museum’s after-school Lang Science Program—writes that his week of fieldwork at the zoo taught him the joys and frustrations of the basic scientific act of observation. Though he “sometimes found it difficult to differentiate among the baboons,” Henry says that he is excited to get to know the animals better before his next observational marathon.

The Young Naturalist Awards is a nationwide, science-based research contest for students in grades 7 through 12 presented by the Museum. To learn more and to submit your own project, visit amnh.org. The deadline for the 2012 contest is March 9, 2012.

The Young Naturalist Awards are proudly supported by Alcoa Foundation.

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