The University of Chicago Magazine August 1995
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In their decades watching

the baboons of Kenya,

Jeanne and Stuart Altmann have discovered a rich social world where behavior and biology meet.


Savanna sights: Mt. Kilimanjaro looms before field observer Rafael Mututua and a baboon troop. Above, a plucky juvenile checks out what's being eaten while a mother grooms her daughter.

STUART ALTMANN RETIRED IN JUNE but plans to keep up his research into feeding and foraging--the Altmanns next trip to Kenya, in fact, is this month. Their project's technology has progressed since 1963--when the only portable sound recorders used stainless steel wire, a World War II innovation--and so have its methods. Their policy of not interfering with the baboons is still sacred, but they now dart animals with a blowpipe-administered anesthetic (done when no animal is watching) to collect blood samples and more detailed biological measurements. Such data allow Jeanne Altmann to trace how environmental and social factors affect not only individual behavior but also physiology, hormone levels, and genetics.

Her work contradicts the belief that all things biochemical are causes, not effects, of behavior. "A very erroneous assumption nowadays," she says, "is that it's all bottom-up, that physiology determines behavior." Her own research starts "from the top down, then goes from the bottom up."

It's an approach that's slowly catching on: "For the past decade, people have increasingly paid attention to the fact that behavior affects physiology, which in turn affects behavior. There are very elaborate feedback loops that we're just beginning to understand."

Collaborating with Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, for instance, she has shown how older and lower-ranking baboons are less able to shut off the production of stress hormones--part of the body's fight-or-flight response. In the long run, the higher hormone levels hinder reproduction and bodily repair, and thus affect behavior.

That finding has led her to explore the significance of individual differences among animals. Some low-ranking females seem adept at avoiding stressful aggression with higher-ranking animals, either by keeping a safe distance or by exploiting their kinship ties within the group. Are such adaptations, Altmann wonders, reflected at the physiological level?

Her "top-down" philosophy also sees expression in genetic studies, on which she collaborates with her former student Susan Alberts, now a postdoc at Harvard; Jean Dubach and Robert Lacy of Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, where Altmann has held a joint appointment since 1984; and Michael Bruford of the London Zoological Society. One goal of this work, she says, is to learn to use genetic data to sketch quickly the social system of a group of animals, saving years of observation.

She describes the process as reading the DNA in blood samples "the way a paleontologist uses fossils"--revealing, for instance, whether the males or females of a group disperse from their birth-group; how the animals' reproductive success varies over time; and whether many males, or one dominant male, sire each generation. Here the extensive kinship records on the Amboseli baboons will prove indispensible, serving as a sort of Rosetta stone for translating genes into genealogy.

Efforts like this don't benefit scientists alone: Conservation plans may hinge on understanding a population's genetic diversity or need for nearby breeding groups. With the prospect of fewer and fewer long-term studies, says Altmann, "We need to find out ways to make the most from short-term studies, especially where species are in danger."

The explorations of Altmann and others at Chicago will get a boost with the creation of a new laboratory dedicated to the links between environment and biology and led by Martha McClintock--a U of C psychology professor whose work with rats has shown how social interactions can affect such reproductive functions as ovulation or conception. In preparation for the lab, a $12-million renovation and expansion of the W. C. Allee Laboratory of Animal Behavior, across from the new Biological Sciences Learning Center, will start this year. The building, says Jeanne Altmann, "will let us move more from the fieldwork to the lab work, and [to do so] for more species." Both abilities, she believes, will be essential to training graduate students.

WHEN NOT IN KENYA, THE ALTMANNS are headquartered on Allee's first floor, their adjoining offices a study in contrasts: His is fairly neat, hers distinctly less so. With students from high-school interns to postdocs, their lab's weekly meeting is an intergenerational event. Snacks for the group come from the sale of pottery--offered to lab members for "a penny, or whatever you can afford"--created in Stuart Altmann's basement studio.

Sitting amid end-of-the-term stacks of papers, Jeanne Altmann speaks with pride of the students who've gone on to prestigious posts across the U.S. She's equally proud of the role of the Amboseli research in Kenya: Staff member Rafael Mututua has been with the project since 1980, while Philip Muruthi, who first studied the baboons as a Kenyan undergraduate, is completing a Ph.D. at Princeton and training other Kenyans at Amboseli.

U.S. or Kenyan, students traveling to the park start with an "incredible database," Stuart Altmann explains: genealogical charts; photos identifying each animal; nutritional breakdowns of the plants; even maps of the animals' water sources, range, and sleeping locations.

"All this makes the study just tremendously productive," he adds. "When students come out there to work on a doctoral dissertation project, they're gathering good, hard data in nothing flat. The only thing that holds them back is how fast they can learn to recognize these animals and plants."

What's fostered the study's progress over the years? The Altmanns attribute part of their success to their differences. The former math major still thinks in equations, while the amateur potter works visually. "Even when we come to the same conclusion from the same data," says Stuart Altmann, "we get there by different path- ways." Though her interest in animal behavior was already established, Jeanne Altmann chose a Ph.D. program in human development--to avoid being a student in her husband's department, and because "our collaboration had always thrived on our bringing different things to it."

They both confess, however, to being emotionally involved in the animals' lives, even as neutral observers. "If you were to sit around our dinner table, you'd think we were in the process of writing a soap opera," says Stuart Altmann. "We're just full of stories about what transpired during the day."

He slips into one such story, affectionately recounting the antics of Ozzie, the "child prodigy" whose curiosity extended to new foods, auto tailpipes, and even, on one remarkable occasion, fire. "People say, `How can you tell one baboon from another?' I say, `They are as different as people.' The Masai," Stuart Altmann notes, "think we've learned how to speak baboon."

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