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Baboon Nomenclature

by Clifford Jolly (

This apparently simple query opens many worm-cans, not least the definition of "species". The short answer is that there is no "right" answer, but there are at least three current usages:

1. a usage that is gaining ground (e.g. at the SWFBR, the world's largest scientific baboonery) in the biomedical AND the primatological literature, is to call them all (including hamadryas, but not geladas) subspecies of one species, following the Biological Species Concept of Mayr, which accords greatest weight to interpopulational gene-flow in the wild. This would make "olives" and "yellows" Papio hamadryas anubis, and Papio hamadryas cynocephalus, respectively.

2. The old (but still respectable) usage that recognizes five full species: P. hamadryas, P papio, P cynocephalus, P anubis and P ursinus. This also accords (more or less) with the currently fashionable "phyogenentic species concept", which emphasises whether you can consistently tell them apart, not whether they interbreed. The trouble is, there are at least two others that you can easily and consistently tell apart, but no-one recently has raised them to full species status.

3. The usage beloved of socio-ecologists, which divides them into two species: P hamadryas (for the hamadryas baboon) and P cynocephalus for the rest (which are often called subspecies). The two species are sometimes vernacularized as "desert baboons" and "savanna baboons", respectively. According to this, yellows are P. cynocephalus cynocephalus, olives are P. c. anubis. This system is widely used, but is my least favorite, because: (a) it doesn't fit any accepted definition of "species" very well (b) P. cynocephalus as thus defined is almost certainly paraphyletic (i.e. hamadryas are related to anubis more closely than anubis are to ursinus, for example) (c) many "savanna" baboons don't live in "savannas".

"Papio cynocephalus, of cynocephalus and anubis subtypes" sounds scientific, perhaps, but it's not "Scientific Nomenclature" in any neo-Linnaean sense. It would be better simply to say: "yellow and olive baboons, Papio hamadryas (s.l)", or, if you prefer, "yellow and olive baboons, Papio cynocephalus (s.l.)". Adding "s.l." just shows that you are using these terms in their broad, inclusive sense.

All this is irritating, I'm sure, to biomedical researchers because the choice between these two usages depends entirely upon whether you put the hamadryas baboon and the yellow baboon in the same species, which tends not to be a major concern on their part!