Learning from Baboons: Dr. Susan Alberts

Headshot of Dr Susan Alberts, blonde woman with glasses

In this episode of BioGist, Alex Hong (Class of 2024), interviews Dr. Susan Alberts. Dr. Alberts is the Robert F. Durden Distinguished Professor of Biology and chair of the Evolutionary Anthropology department here at Duke. Listen about how Dr. Alberts spends her days studying baboons in their natural habitat in Kenya, its impact and correlation with human social determinants of health (SDOH), and her time outside the lab.

To find out more about Dr. Alberts, visit her lab website at https://sites.duke.edu/albertslab/, and follow her on Twitter @susan_alberts. You can also find more about the Amboseli Research Project at their Twitter account (@AmboseliBaboons), their Facebook page (Amboseli Baboon Research Project), and the project website at https://amboselibaboons.nd.edu

Listen here


baboons, dung, animals, humans, duke university, primates, hormone, animal behavior, environment, microbiome


Dr. Susan Alberts, Alex Hong

Alex Hong  00:02

Welcome to BioGist, where we bring you the gist of biology at Duke University.  Hello, my name is Alex Hong and I'm a freshman at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Today I'm talking with Dr. Alberts. Dr. Alberts is the Robert F. Durden distinguished professor of biology and evolutionary anthropology at Duke.  Thank you so much for meeting with me, Dr. Alberts!

Dr. Susan Alberts  00:23

Thanks for having me, Alex.

Alex Hong  00:25

So for our first question, could you tell us a little bit about what you study?

Dr. Susan Alberts  00:30

Sure. So I'm really interested in how animals use behavior to solve the problems that their environment presents to them. That's the basic framework that I work in. And the problems that the environment presents can be anything from getting food, to avoiding predation, to reproducing, to managing relationships with conspecifics, because the other animals that you live around and with are as big a part of your environment as the food you eat. And it's particularly the social relationships that I'm really interested in: how did they evolve? How do they function? And what outcomes and opportunities do they create for animals? I'm part of a long term research project where we've been monitoring one well studied population of baboons for decades now. And in addition to collecting behavioral data from them, we also collect fecal samples on a regular basis from which we can get DNA, we can get hormones, we can get parasites, we can learn a lot about what's going on under the skin of the animals by picking up the dung they deposit. And then periodically, we also immobilize animals by darting with an anesthetic bearing dart, and we can get blood samples and measure them physically, and gain even more insight. But the real thrust of our work is observational data on how they live, who they interact with, when they're born, when they die, when they move between groups, like that.

Alex Hong  01:56

Nice. That's very interesting. Can you be walk us through a bit about how you study these baboons?

Dr. Susan Alberts  02:02

Yeah, so dung is a wonderful thing, because it's a reflection of so much that's going on inside the animal. By collecting a dung sample, you can tell what it's eaten, you've got a sample of its DNA, and of course, the DNA of everything it's eaten, you've got a measure of its intestinal parasites, you can understand its microbiome. You can measure hormone metabolites, we can get sex, steroid hormones, estrogen and testosterone, we can get glucocorticoids --which reflect activation of what many people think of as the stress access, the stress response. And we can get thyroid hormone, which measures metabolic activation, it's really a treasure trove of information. It's not perfect, you know, measures from dung tend to be a little noisy, but our dung collection sample is now in the 10s of 1000s were well between 10 and 20,000 dung samples on a few hundred animals. So these repeated measures have allowed us to gain really unprecedented insight into longitudinal changes in hormone concentrations, and in the microbiome and various other things that we wouldn't have been able to do without the dung sample collection.

Alex Hong  03:12

Through these research studies. Have you noticed any link between these baboons and humans? Because after all, we are all primates, right?

Dr. Susan Alberts  03:21

Yeah, so I think my research is very much informed by the idea that understanding how the baboons that I study solve the problems in their environment will shed light on how humans have evolved to solve problems in their environments. And what's especially useful about using a wild animal model of primates to think about humans is that there are many ways in which humans are quite similar to other animals. And there are ways in which humans are quite distinct.

Alex Hong  03:51

So why do you study baboons, and primates in general?

Dr. Susan Alberts  03:54

Yeah, so I guess there's different layers to that answer. One answer is that when I was an undergraduate, and I received a fellowship, to go do something interesting for a year, I wrote to a number of different scientists looking for possibilities. I knew I wanted to do field work, I knew I wanted to do animal behavior. And the person who not only responded to me, but called me the day after she got my letter was Jean Altman, who eventually became my PhD advisor. And she was 10 years at that time into a long term study, what is now a 50 year study of the baboon population that I work on. And within a few years, I went and worked with her. And that's how I ended up studying baboons. But there are other answers to the question that have to do with, first of all, the inherently fascinating nature of baboons and their, their easy observability their Savanna organisms that evolved in a Savanna environment like humans, and they're highly social, highly adaptable, highly flexible, able to respond to environmental changes. They're very flexibly in those traits. They're very like humans. And they're just inherently interesting and easy to watch because of the fact that they spend so much time on the ground. Baboons are remarkably easy to watch in a very detailed way. And so the richness of behavioral data you can collect on them is really special.

Alex Hong  05:20

Finally, let's wrap it up. What's one thing you love doing outside of work?

Dr. Susan Alberts  05:24

I love spending time with my family. I love spending time with my kids. And they're both adult or nearly adult now, and they each have very different personalities. And it's always a different adventure, depending on which one I'm spending time with.

Alex Hong  05:38

Well, that's it for this one. BioGist is supported by the Duke University biology department. Music is from Poddington Bear. Thanks so much for listening and hope to see you next time.