Holy Baboon! A 'Mystical' Moment In Africa A biologist reflects on an awe-inspiring experience in Africa, when a group of baboons united in some kind of amazing "mystical" moment.
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Holy Baboon! A 'Mystical' Moment In Africa

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Holy Baboon! A 'Mystical' Moment In Africa

Holy Baboon! A 'Mystical' Moment In Africa

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Most biologists who study baboons have spent an enormous amount of time in the field - sitting, watching, taking careful notes. Most of the time there's not much to see. The baboons eat, groom, fight, sleep. Today we have a story about a bit of baboon behavior that is a little more unusual and it comes to us from our friends at RADIOLAB.

(Soundbite of sound effects)

JAD ABUMRAD: Hello, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Hello, Jad. And that's Jad Abumrad from WNYC.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And this is me, Robert Krulwich.

MONTAGNE: And guys, before we get started, since we haven't spoken in just a -in a little while, remind our listeners what RADIOLAB is.

KRULWICH: RADIOLAB is a place where we explore very big ideas that make us rethink ourselves

ABUMRAD: And the world around us.

KRULWICH: In this case, I was thinking about a rather odd moment of baboon behavior.

Professor BARBARA SMUT (University of Michigan): Hi, this is Barb.

ABUMRAD: Hi, Barb.

KRULWICH: Hi, Barb. Who is Barb, by the way?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Barb Smuts is an anthropologist and a psychologist at the University of Michigan.

Prof. SMUT: Where I teach courses on animal behavior.

KRULWICH: And she told me a story that I really want you to hear.

ABUMRAD: Hmm-hmm. Okay.

KRULWICH: It starts a bunch of years ago. She was doing some field research with some baboons in Kenya.

Prof. SMUT: Well, my job was to get them comfortable enough with me that I could follow them around all day and record what they were doing.

KRULWICH: And how long would you spend with them?

Prof. SMUT: About 10 or 11 hours.

KRULWICH: For how many days a week?

Prof. SMUT: Seven.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: For weeks at a time or a month at a time?

Prof. SMUT: Two years.

KRULWICH: Two years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SMUT: Yeah.

KRULWICH: And your job was to sort of hang around them?

Prof. SMUT: Yes. I would go wherever they went.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: As she told me about this time when something really, really mysterious happened.

Prof. SMUT: Yes. Mm-hmm.

KRULWICH: Okay, so set the scene for us. You were in kind of a valley?

Prof. SMUT: Yeah, we're fairly open grasslands.

KRULWICH: And you are with how many baboons?

Prof. SMUT: About 30 animals, 35. And there's a stream.

(Soundbite of running water)

ABUMRAD: Oh, there is a stream. I thought I would, you know, add one. This isn't the stream, is it?

KRULWICH: No. It's - I'm just enhancing your narrative just a little bit to give you a sense, you know?


KRULWICH: So imagine the baboons.

(Soundbite of running water)

Prof. SMUT: They're heading back toward their sleeping place.

(Soundbite of baboon's voice)

Prof. SMUT: Grunting at each other and greeting each other.

(Soundbite of baboon)

ABUMRAD: These are baboons we are hearing, like real baboons?

KRULWICH: Yeah. Well, they're not Barb's baboons, but they're absolutely real baboons.

Prof. SMUT: And I followed them walking along the stream many, many times before and many times after, but this time it was different.

KRULWICH: Because this time�

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: All of a sudden�

Prof. SMUT: They all stopped moving�

(Soundbite of baboon)

Prof. SMUT: �pretty much all at the same time.

(Soundbite of baboon's voice)

Prof. SMUT: And they got very, very quiet.

(Soundbite of running water)

Prof. SMUT: Even the little kids stopped there. You know, the kids are always making noises, and even they got quiet.

KRULWICH: What were they all doing?

Prof. SMUT: Everybody sat down on a rock and most of them looked down into the stream. Like into a little pool that was right below them.

KRULWICH: And then what?

Prof. SMUT: They didn't do anything. They just sat there in complete silence.

(Soundbite of running water)

KRULWICH: It sounds like they were almost doing a, you know, a Quaker kind of thing.

Prof. SMUT: It felt to me like a sacred moment.

KRULWICH: The quiet was�

Prof. SMUT: But�

KRULWICH: �that quiet?

Prof. SMUT: It was that quiet. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced with them before. The baboons are almost never completely quiet. Even when they're sleeping�

(Soundbite of chuckle)

Prof. SMUT: �there is noise.

KRULWICH: And how long did it last?

Prof. SMUT: At least five minutes. And then they all got up.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. SMUT: And resumed their march down to the sleeping place like they always did.

(Soundbite of baboons)

ABUMRAD: Has anyone else ever seen baboons do this?

KRULWICH: Barbara Smut says she is the only scientist ever to have seen and written down a behavior like this.

Prof. SMUT: Maybe it's more common than I think it is. I don't know, but I felt as if I got a glimpse into a part of baboon life that humans just don't get to see.

(Soundbite of music)

ABUMRAD: So then what?

KRULWICH: That's all I'm going to tell you.

ABUMRAD: What do you mean?

KRULWICH: That's it.

ABUMRAD: That's it?


ABUMRAD: I mean what were they doing? Don't you want to know what they were really doing?

KRULWICH: Well, how can I know that? Can't like - all I'm saying is that maybe there is something - I'm suggesting.

ABUMRAD: No, I know what you're suggesting. I mean, you said it yourself, Quaker thing and here we are in the holidays and this is like a�

KRULWICH: A little�

ABUMRAD: I know what you are trying to do here. What with - maybe they were looking at a fish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: The kids weren't making any movements. They weren't looking at a fish. She said they were not looking at anyone...

ABUMRAD: She says they were looking down at the pool.

KRULWICH: Yes, I left out the part where she says they're not looking at anyone. I mean, they're all looking together into a�

ABUMRAD: Into the water.

KRULWICH: Into empty space.

ABUMRAD: (Unintelligible) so how do you get from that to like Quaker?

KRULWICH: Well, the capacity�

ABUMRAD: Quaker baboons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABUMRAD: Come on.

KRULWICH: I'm suggesting that baboons have inner lives.

ABUMRAD: Yeah, sure, I'll give you that, but�

KRULWICH: That's a lot.

ABUMRAD: You gave me a lot just then.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: �let me throw in with Jad. What are you saying?

ABUMRAD: All I'm saying, really, is that we know that baboons have a sense of fairness, they have a sense of empathy, they lead complex social lives. So why wouldn't they be capable perhaps of some kind of wonder or rapture or even thanks. To pay no attention to Jad. He's a - one of those who hates Christmas, that's what he is.

MONTAGNE: I'm not going to be a Scrooge. Okay, I am�

ABUMRAD: Scrooge. He's a Scrooge.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Sorry, Jad, but I'm okay with the mystery.


ABUMRAD: I'm okay - for now.

MONTAGNE: All right. Well, thank you for now, Jad and Robert, for stopping in.

ABUMRAD: Thanks, Renee.

KRULWICH: You're welcome. I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And that is, I know, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from the show RADIOLAB. It's a production of WNYC and you can explore RADIOLAB at npr.org.

This is, by the way, MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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