It is dawn at Filoha cliff in Awash National Park, a government-established protected area in central lowland Ethiopia. The early morning sun peeks over the horizon, warming the black volcanic rocks of the cliff and causing the bubbling hot springs to shimmer.
Among the rocks and atop the precipice, furry figures begin to stir. It is time for this band of hamadryas baboons to wake up after surviving another night in the semi-desert, where lions, hyenas and humans are a constant threat.
Infants and juveniles emerge from their mother’s warm embrace to play, fight and socialize, chirping and squealing as they show off their strength and climb through the acacia thornscrub. Sub-adults and adults begin to groom each other, strengthening social bonds.
A teenaged male shakes the branches of an acacia tree with great force before sauntering close to a leader male and his unit of females. The females huddle close to their leader as he yawns, showing his formidable canines in a clear threat, indicating his willingness to ferociously defend his tenure as a leader.
Out of the serene morning glow, violence erupts, the leader male bounding after his young adversary with great speed as clouds of dust engulf the band. Females and their young scatter to escape the skirmish. It is an innocuous bout. The young male is briefly thrown onto his back in submission, and the leader male eases off and returns to his females.
This battle is another failed takeover attempt by this young male. He has much more growth and learning to do before he can be a true contender to become a leader male. This incident is one of many that occurs throughout the day within this band of hamadryas baboons, as they constantly grapple for control of breeding females.
Baboons are widespread across Africa and can thrive in many different climates and environments. Some within the scientific community believe that all baboons should be categorized as subspecies of the same species, while others recognize six species based on morphological, behavioral, developmental and genetic differences.
Forest baboons, such as the Guinea baboons of West Africa and the olive baboons of central Africa, live in tropical rainforest environments and spend much of their time in trees.
Savannah baboons, including the olive baboons of East Africa and the chacma baboons of South Africa, thrive in open environments and travel long distances for food during the dry season.
Desert baboons, such as the chacma baboons of Namibia and the hamadryas baboons of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, reside in arid semi-desert ecosystems in which food availability is highly influenced by seasonality.
There is overlap between the distributions of the olive baboons of Kenya and the hamadryas baboons of Ethiopia. As a result, there are groups that have bred between these two subspecies. Interestingly, their hybrid offspring exhibit a spectrum of behaviors found in both hamadryas baboons and olive baboons.
While all baboon species live in groups, hamadryas baboons have a uniquely complex multi-tiered social structure. The largest grouping is the troop—all of the baboons that share a sleeping site — which can easily exceed hundreds of individuals. Hamadryas baboons sleep in large groups on cliff faces to lessen the chances of predation—large groups increase vigilance to lurking predators.