The might of the majorityMeg Crofoot has been an Alexander von Humboldt Professor at the University of Konstanz since 2019. Here, the American behavioural ecologist reports on her research into primates and discusses her role as a woman in science.
What makes us human?According to Meg Crofoot, it is not our individual characteristics that make us species, but instead what happens when groups of people come together and interact. As humans, we have an unusual ability to coordinate our behavior and work together to achieve shared goals, laying the foundation for the emergence of complex societies. Crofoot wants to know how these abilities evolved, and how they shape and are shaped by the structure of our social connections.
In the service of scienceThanks to GPS technology, the researchers are able to monitor entire groups over long periods and thus investigate how the animals act collectively. To do so, they provide them with transmitters like the one shown here, attached to a baboon’s wrist.
No leader, after allBut, contrary to expectations, it turns out there is no leader controlling the group. Translated into a video, the researchers’ GPS data show how this group of baboons moves. The result:
The majority decidesWhen the members of the group set off in two different directions, the group eventually moves in the one chosen by the majority. If equal numbers go in both directions, the group chooses the direction in between. The Crofoot team’s findings completely undermine our previous notions.
Surprise in the rain forestAnother location investigated by Crofoot and her team: the forests on the Panamanian archipelago, Coiba. In 2018, the researcher’s camera traps captured something very surprising there:
Use of tools A capuchin breaks open a sea almond fruit with a stone. On the mainland, capuchins have been studied for over 30 years. They have never been seen to use tools. Among a number of differences between the island and mainland ecosystems, Crofoot thinks two may be particularly important: for one thing, there is a much more restricted choice of food – the animals could be forced to tap new sources. For another, they have no enemies on Coiba; there are no ocelots, for example. Capuchins can thus spend more time on the ground in safety, which facilitates the use of tools.
Social learningFor Crofoot, the observation is interesting for another reason, too. She wants to understand how behavioural patterns and traditions like the use of tools evolve and how they are passed on. Transferring something from one animal to another, in particular, presupposes they are capable of social learning.
Locally restrictedIn this context, the researchers are interested in two observations: the use of tools is very spatially restricted—it only occurs on one small section of the island. So, unlike other traditions, the use of tools does not appear to have been transferred from one social group to another—although the conditions are similar on the whole archipelago. The researchers therefore suspect that passing on the tool tradition is rather more complex than they had previously thought. And there is another observation for which they do not have an explanation yet either:
A man thing?Out of the thousands of photos and videos of the animals featuring tool use, there is only a single image of a female capuchin using these tools. This has puzzled Crofoot and her team. It is not a question of strength. The images show that even young males, who are smaller than fully-grown females, use the stone tools.
A chair on Lake ConstanceThe detailed data analysis is still ongoing. Since 2019, the American researcher has been planning and managing this and other projects from Germany. Having worked at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the University of California, Davis, she relocated to the University of Konstanz as a Humboldt Professor where she heads the Department for the Ecology of Animal Societies.
In the minorityAs a female Alexander von Humboldt Professor, Meg Crofoot is in a minority. It is still the case that significantly more men are nominated for the coveted positions than women. But it surprises her that so much emphasis is put on her being a woman.
Role modelsCrofoot believes that she and other top women in science have a responsibility to support the next generation of female researchers and to use their positions of influence to advocate for more equitable practices. However, she says, this won’t be enough—men need to step up and do their part.
New impetusScience is more innovative when researchers reflect the entire spectrum of society and not just a narrow circle. Crofoot is convinced that diverse perspectives are key to solving today’s pressing scientific challenges, and welcomes the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s focus on developing and sustaining connections among researchers around the world. Collaboration is key to answering the questions that drive Crofoot’s research, and through her Humboldt Professorship in Konstanz, she aims to establish a global network of scientists working together to discover how complex animal societies emerge and function.