Cheating gelada baboons keep it on the down low

Researchers have observed behaviors in gelada baboons that suggest a possible evolutionary link for cheating.

Although gelada baboons (Theropithecus gelada) are unlikely to croon the tune, "Your Cheatin' Heart," it seems that they are just as likely to be unfaithful to mates as humans are, according a study by behavior ecologists, led by Aliza le Roux, at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

Geladas live in small groups, organized around a dominant male, a few subordinate males and up to 12 females. The dominant male is perceived as being the reproductive leader, also, with subordinates loudly and aggressively warned off the females by the leader.

Mating in the open grassland habitat frequented by geladas is a loud affair, so presumably, the dominant male would be able to keep track of his troop. But, research shows that about 17 percent of a troop's progeny have been fathered by the subordinate males, according to Live Science website.

With their mating habits, how are these subordinates able to sire so many offspring?

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Tactical deception, theorizes le Roux. "It's when you are doing something that's benefiting you — when you are cheating, basically — but you are actively doing something to not be discovered," le Roux told LiveScience.

Watching 19 groups of geladas in the Simien Mountains National Park in Ethiopia over a two-year period gave le Roux and colleagues unique insight to the inter-group mating behaviors.

The behavior of a copulating pair choosing a meeting spot that was well-removed from the dominant male (at least 65 feet away) had been observed also in macaques. But, the cheating geladas did something, or rather didn't do something, that was quite unusual — they didn't vocalize during mating.

Le Roux feels that this indicates tactical deception, not unlike what humans do to hide acts of infidelity.

Related: How to spot a cheater

The team also discovered that if the copulating pair was caught by a dominant male, they were treated to "punishment," with the male attacking the pair aggressively, rushing at and trying to bite them.

That said, according to le Roux, punishment by the dominant male did very little to change the cheating pairs' behavior. Most continued to mate in secret.

The researchers suggest that with these early observations, there may be other species that engage in infidelity, not just primates, and that there could be an evolutionary link to such behaviors in humans.

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