Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Luigi Fossati: A forgotten early primatologist

Can we really take into accounts early observations and writings of non "scholarly" works when it comes to the study of animals? Should we ignore written observations of animals behaviors and ecology if it wasn't written by an academic in a scholarly manner? A paper I found recently details the early work of an Italian army officer named Luigi Fossati and his observations on hamadryas baboons in Eritrea, Africa. In their paper, Luigi Fossati: A forgotten early primatologist and his observations on hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) in Eritrea, Gippoliti and Majolo (2006) described some of Fossati's observations and compared them with what is currently known on hamadryas baboons. But before that, here's a little bit about Fossati.

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Eritrea, in relations to other African countries.

Luigi Fossati was an Italian army officer that spent a few year in Eritrea in the 1920's (Eritrea was an Italian colony until the Second World War). Before he went to Eritrea, he already had a strong interest in animals, ranging from the interactions between different animal species and behaviors of lesser known mammal species of that time. Upon returning to Italy in late 1920's, he published several books and papers on hunting and on the behaviors of various Eritrean mammals and birds. The first six chapter of Fossati's (1930) book, Uod Baracà (figli selvage) ed altre storie id bestie selvagge dell'Eritrea, is about his observations on hamadryas baboons in Eritrea. In this presumably early primatological field work, Fossati's observation was done on Mt. Gaab in the Aidereso Valley, near Asmara. Although I can't get my hands on Fossati's book nor am I able to read Italian, Gippoliti and Majolo's paper (2006) comes in handy. They compared some of Fossati's observations to what we currently know about hamadryas baboons and hoped that Fossati's work will be recognized by the scientific community and be considered one of the first field primatologists.

Here are what Fossati observed and published:

  • Adult hamadryas males often interact with and protect juveniles and infants. Contemporary studies show that these male-infant relationship tend to reduce the risk of infanticide by other males, reduce agonistic male-male interactions and favor female mate choice (females more likely to mate with males that has strong male-infant relationships).
  • Males move to new groups when they reach adulthood while females stay in their own group. He observed dispersing males acquire females from the older males of the same or different bands to form new "families" (one male unit) but before doing so, these males may spend a long period of time alone. Fossati's observation on the pattern of dispersion can be supported in contemporary literature. It is interesting to note that while females have been observed moving from one group to another, they only do so within the same band. Some females, however, are kidnapped into a different band by adult males (which is not a true dispersal). Studies have shown that dispersion significantly increase mortality rate.
  • Interspecies association between a solitary male baboon and vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops). Fossati observed that the dispersing baboon followed a group of vervet monkeys for a few days and spending a close distance with them. He hypothesized that such association was mainly due to predator avoidance, using these vervet monkeys to increase the chance to detect predator.
  • Response to various predators in different ways according to the type of predator present. He also observed that the baboons responded appropriately to alarm calls given by other species. Recent studies show that hamadryas baboons have a relatively limited range calls. These baboons not only listen to alarm calls from their conspecific but also from other species.
  • Reported the first written account of predation of a juvenile baboon from a Verreaux's eagle (Aquila verreauxii). The first description of the Verreaux's eagle as a potential predator of baboons was published in a scientific journal 70 years after Fossati's published work by Zinner and Pelàez (1999).

Fossati was clearly able to identify and document the behaviors of hamadryas baboons in Eritrea while he was stationed there in 1920's. Gippoliti and Majolo brought up convincing reasons why Fossati's work should be recognized as one of the early primatologists. I think we should re-evaluate how we do research by not only cite "famous" works but to cite any relevant publications out there. I do agree with Gippoliti and Majolo on the importance of early observations that are conducted when human impact on habitat characteristics was minor or irrelevant.

NOTE: A copy of Luigi Fossati: a forgotten early primatologist and his observations on Hamadryas Baboons (Papio Hamadryas) in Eritrea (Gippoliti & Majolo; 2006) can be obtained by clicking on this link and requesting it from the University's website. The paper FREE to view but due to restrictions imposed by the publisher, I cannot attach the paper in this blog.

Gippoliti, S. Majolo, B. 2006. Luigi Fossati: a forgotten early primatologist and his observations on Hamadryas Baboons (Papio Hamadryas) in Eritrea. Ethology, Ecology and Evolution 18 (1): 69-72.

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