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Words Tamara Batshon

They say that a dog is a man’s best friend, but did you know that a monkey is a wolf’s best pal?  At least that seems to be the case in Guassa Plateau, the alpine grasslands of eastern Africa where these two animal species appear to have an unusual agreement. A type of baboon known as geladas has no fear of the Ethiopian wolves wandering through their herds. Scientists have reported that the monkeys are aware that the wolves will not attack them, as they are not nervous in the presence of the wolves.  On the other hand, they will run away from other canine species, such as feral dogs, which have been known to attack young geladas.

Instead of attacking the monkeys, the Ethiopian wolves mainly prey on rodents or young sheep and goats, which are as big as young geladas. It also appears that the wolves are more successful in capturing rodents in the presence of geladas.  Scientists believe that there are several reasons for this trend.  For one, the monkey herd may actually serve as a kind of camouflage for the wolves, so that the wolves can creep up on the rodents without being noticed. Secondly, the grazing monkeys may drive the rodents out into the open away from their burrows or vegetation, allowing the wolves to attack and capture their prey more skillfully.

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Peace between geladas and wolves

Scientists have observed that a wolf and a gelada can be within one to two meters of each other and yet practically ignore each other for up to two hours at a time. On the other hand, the geladas immediately run away to cliffs for safety when they spot the aggressive feral dogs, which are known to prey on them. The wolves seem to consciously take care and behave peacefully around a herd of geladas, as though they have figured out that their presence is an asset. The wolves move slowly and peacefully as they seek rodents and refrain from the zigzag sprint that they use elsewhere in the savannah.

While monkeys have been observed to form associations with other animals, experts have noted that these relationships are rare and often fleeting.  On the other hand, the gelada relationship with the wolves is pretty stable – scientists have been observing it over the course of several years – and it doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon. With only 500 Ethiopian wolves remaining in the wild, the peaceful pact between them and geladas is certainly a good thing.  Primatologists believe that other predators might also have this similar relationship with other animals and it could be a pretty common occurrence. However it’s normally difficult for scientists to study in detail and draw conclusions, as predators in the wild are usually scared off by people.

Gelada, Semien Mountains, Ethiopia
Gelada, Semien Mountains, Ethiopia

From wolves to dogs

The domestication of dogs by humans many years ago also follows a similar pattern: wolves and primates hanging around each other and being tolerant of one another’s presence. Thousands of years ago researchers believe that wolves scavenged near human settlements or groups. This might have been due to the increase in human population density, advances in blade and hunting technology, and climate change, which may have altered prey densities and made scavenging crucial to the survival of some wolf populations. Adaptations to scavenging such as tameness, small body size, and a decreased age of reproduction would reduce their hunting efficiency further, eventually leading to obligatory scavenging.

The ancestors of today’s dogs learned that by hanging around man’s dwellings, they could grab a quick bite to eat every now and then—without all the effort and danger involved in actual hunting. It is also likely that humans killed or drove away the aggressive wolves that hung around for food scraps, whereas the non-aggressive wolves were probably tolerated. Having the wolves hang around may have also encouraged other carnivores to keep their distance, offering a benefit for humans, too. The non-aggressive wolves then eventually became domesticated after humans appreciated them as hunters and later on as companions.

There is also the slightly different but commonly believed idea that prehistoric humans found orphaned wolf pups and took them into their homes. These pups were fed and treated well, as we treat and care for our pets today, and the generations that followed gradually became our domestic dogs.  We may not know the real reason for the domestication of wolves many thousands of years ago or if they are in fact the direct ancestors of dogs, but one thing is clear for sure: Peaceful co-existence among animals and between humans and animals is highly beneficial.