This picture of Papio Anubis baboons in Tanzania was an entrant in Naturejobs’ inaugural Scientist At Work photo competition. Joshua Chu-Tan investigates the science behind the image.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Filipa Paciencia’s photo was staged, with a perfect line of baboons steering your gaze straight to her, standing on the edge of Lake Manyara and a stunning backdrop of the Simangori mountains. In reality, it was just a spontaneous moment in an otherwise normal morning during a field study. “I was just collecting data,” she laughs.
Filipa is conducting research on the relation between baboon mating behaviour and how a particular sexual disease, caused by a bacterium called Treponema pallidum, spreads. “The bacterium Treponema pallidum causes syphilis and yaws in humans and is often associated with anogenital ulceration in baboons of both sexes,” she explains.
The PhD student works at the Department of Cognitive Ethology of the Deutsches Primatenzentrum (German Primate Centre), in Göttingen. “It’s not only Tanzania, other primates are affected in other parts of Africa. You have this disease all over.”
Hailing from Portugal, Filipa completed her Masters in conservational biology in Lisbon but her want for a slight change in direction and interest in primates led her to Germany to start a PhD. That interest has allowed her to travel twice to Lake Manyara National Park, in Northern Tanzania, for her field study but now she’s in her third year of the degree, and has no plans to revisit. “I really need to analyse my data now!”
Whilst in Tanzania, she was required to spend her days with a large group of Papio Anubis baboons. In order familiarise herself and identify individuals within the group, she took countless shots of their faces or any other identifying characteristic, which was later compiled into a large album. Her initial stay lasted for nine months and involved taking photo after photo of infected baboons, and then observing their mating behaviour.
Staying in a historic field station initially built by celebrated zoologist Iain Douglas Hamilton, Filipa became very close with the park rangers who helped her in her stay. “I owe my life to those rangers,” she says. “We survived elephant charges, buffaloes, hippos and lions…we encountered everything [whilst] walking in the bush.” In fact, it was one of the rangers, Pay Mbaryo, who provided the hand that captured the moment. “If we are here and nothing is happening, just click on the camera and take a picture, so I can have a picture of myself with the baboons,” Paciencia told him. “All the settings just fell into place.”
The photograph was taken on a Nikon d5100 with a 300mm lens.
Joshua Chu-Tan is a 3rd year PhD student with the Provis Group at The Australian National University’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, Canberra, investigating gene therapies for age-related macular degeneration. He loves writing whilst sipping espressos in the finest hipster cafes. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @joshchutan.