Baboons: The Monkeys With the Scarlet Booties

This female baboon (right) appears to be in ovulation, as her rear end is enlarged and red. Michele D'Amico supersky77/Getty Images

When you first think of baboons, what comes to mind? It's OK. It's the same thing most of us think of: their, ahem, big red butts. So let's just get this out of the way upfront. Why are baboon butts red?

First, to clarify, the swollen red bottom happens only on female baboons. It's a sign that they're ready to mate, so yes, it's about sex. And when we say their bottoms are swollen, we do mean swollen. LiveScience reports that the swelling has been recorded between 4 and 6.5 inches (10 and 16.5 centimeters).


He Likes Big Red Butts

But all this exaggerated swelling doesn't necessarily have any real function or benefit for baboon baby-making. The baboons with the reddest rumps didn't attract the most mates, or have the most sex, according to a 2105 study published in the journal Animal Behaviour. The female baboons with the most swelling didn't seem to have better odds of their offspring surviving past infancy, either.

The male baboons, it seems, were more interested in how long it had been since the females had their last infant than how red their rumps were. Females that had older infants and weren't nursing, regardless of swelling, were the ones more likely to mate.


So again, what's the deal with the red bums? It appears it's simply a function of ovulation. For 10 to 20 days each month, this hind area swells up, and reaches its peak when the female is most fertile. Then it returns back to normal.

We can (unfortunately?) see this swelling so well because both male and female baboons' butts are furless. They even get callouses on their bums from sitting on them all the time, similar to the callouses dogs develop on their elbows from lying down.

Now that we have all the baboon butt talk out of the way, let's answer some other questions about baboons, because they are cool regardless of their ugly rear ends.


Baboons Are Monkeys

Baboons (Papio) are primates and they're one of the 23 types of Old World monkeys, so they do not have prehensile tails. That means, unlike their New World monkey cousins in South America, they can't use their tails to swing from trees.

They're also the world's largest monkeys. So with their size — and the fact that they don't have a tail that can help them out much — baboons tend to spend most of their time on the ground, using both their feet and hands to walk, rather than in trees.


Most scientists agree that there are five species of baboon. Interbreeding is common, so there are hybrids, which makes strict classification tricky.

The five generally accepted species of baboon are:

  • Anubis: also known as the olive baboon, this species is the most widespread
  • Chacma: also known as the Cape baboon, this is the largest baboon species
  • Guinea: this is the smallest baboon species
  • Hamadryas: these are also called sacred baboons
  • Yellow: some lump this species in with Hamadryas
baboon troop
Baboons live in families called troops that can include as many as 300 monkeys.
Ineke Kamps/Getty Images


Baboons Are at Home in Africa

Baboons are indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa and are found widely throughout the southern half of the continent. Hamadryas baboons are the northernmost species. They live in the cliffs along the Red Sea.

Most baboons live 20 to 30 years in the wild. They give birth to one baby at a time, though sometimes they have twins. Then they take at least a year off to raise that baby, which is known as an "infant." (Sorry to say baby baboons don't get a cuter name than that.) Baboons are mature at about 6 or 8 years old.


All species live in big groups called "troops." These troops can be as small as a half dozen animals or as large as 300 or more. Now you can see how a troop can do some real damage to a farmer's crop.

Baboons are clever in their pursuit of food, and that can make them dangerous. That's because they've figured out how to get human food — the tastiest, easiest food of all.

Baboons have adapted to live alongside humans, which means they eat farmers' crops, making them a pest. They've also been known to open car doors and go right into people's homes in an effort to find food. They're kind of like the grizzly bears or raccoons of Africa.

And they're omnivores, meaning they eat both veggies and meat. Their regular diet includes fruit, roots, grubs, and insects, grasses, bark, rodents, and birds. And, it seems, whatever tasty bits humans leave in the back seats of their cars.


They Have Power in Numbers

Baboons are pretty strong, but they don't really Hulk out and rip their shirts off. Instead they have powerful jaws with sharp and rather frightening-looking upper and lower canine teeth. And they're very protective of their food and their troop.

Males in particular use brute strength to dominate rivals and maintain a position of leadership or status in the troop. If a human has food they want, or dares to try to take food from them, they can turn that strength and those sharp teeth on people. (They've even been known to attack leopards that got too close.)


Though they are the largest monkeys, baboons aren't big compared to humans. They're about 20 to 34 inches (50 to 86 centimeters) tall (plus a tail), and weigh 30 to 85 pounds (13 to 38 kilograms) on average. They usually don't want to attack; they're more likely to try to warn humans away. But if that doesn't work, they will charge and bite. You can trust that those massive teeth will break the skin — and maybe a bone.

And there is good news to report about the status of baboons. It's hard to know how many baboons are in the wild because there are so dang many of them. Only the Guinea baboon is classified as "near threatened." It's lost nearly one quarter of its homeland over the past three decades due to hunting and farming. All other species of baboon are classified as "least concern." We'll take those classifications when it comes to primates, any day of the week.


Baboons FAQs

Are baboons dangerous to humans?
A baboon will have to feel threatened before attacking humans. They have very sharp teeth and strong jaws that can cause serious damage and even break bones. They generally aren’t aggressive toward humans, though.
Are baboons omnivores?
Yes, they regularly eat fruit, insects, roots, bark, grasses, birds and rodents.
Why do baboons have red bottoms?
This is only true of females, and is a sign that they're ready to mate.
What are the five species of baboons?
Baboons are some of the largest monkeys in the world, and the five species include olive, yellow, chacma, Guinea, and sacred.