Munch Lab

Mix yourself a baboon

Just as when a new cocktail is invented by mixing old ingredients, evolution sometimes makes a brand new species by mixing old ones. One such remarkable example is the Kinda baboon (picture) that inhabits large parts of Angola, Zimbabwe, and Dem. rep. Congo. Two ancestral baboon species had followed separate evolutionary paths for about one and a half million years until they met only 150 thousand years ago and fused to create the Kinda baboon. This surprising finding is part of a study that we just published in Science Advances, as part of a large international collaboration with important contributions from the Mailund and Schierup labs at BiRC.

By analyzing full genomes from multiple individuals from each baboon species, the study reveals the complicated ancestral relationship between the six baboon species. The species tree of baboons has two main clades, one with northern species (Guinea, Olive, and Hamadryas) and one with the southern species (Yellow, Kinda, and Chacma). The species tree has bifurcations where ancestral species split into two, just like we usually think of a species tree, but it also has interconnections between branches, where branches fuse rather than split. One such case is the fifty-fifty mix of a northern and a southern ancestral species giving rise to the Kinda baboon.

As primates, baboons are close relatives to humans and studying them is a way to understand the evolutionary forces that shape our own species. Baboon species are about as different from each other as modern humans were from Neanderthals and other contemporary archaic humans, and just as Neanderthals hybridized with modern humans, so do living baboon species. Although very different in terms of looks, baboon species interbreed where their ranges overlap and the published study reveals ongoing admixture between Yellow and Olive Baboons. Further studies of admixture between living baboon species may thus reveal important insights, that will help us understand our own complicated history of admixture with extinct human species such as the Neanderthal.

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