Olduvai the baboon was minding his business in the savannas of Kenya’s Amboseli basin when he suddenly dropped to the ground, a small tranquilizing dart having found purchase beneath his fur. None of his fellow baboons noticed; the person quickly lowering the blow gun saw to that. A few hours later, Olduvai would be released—unaware of the contribution he had made to our understanding of aging.
Once a year, a team of U.S. and Kenyan scientists spends 10 days tranquilizing a total of 20 baboons in the areas in and around Amboseli National Park, under the supervision of veterinarians from the Kenya Wildlife Service. The researchers are extremely careful about which baboons to dart: no visibly pregnant females, no lactating mothers, and almost never juveniles. Baboons are darted only when they’re alone and other baboons are looking the other way. Why go through this elaborate process? The answer is simple: data, and lots of it. While the animals are sedated, researchers quickly take measurements and collect blood and skin samples that will be used to scrutinize the baboons’ DNA for signs of premature aging and many other biological details. “The whole challenge of studying a population like this is trying to understand what’s happening under the skin,” says Duke University evolutionary biologist Susan Alberts.