The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category goes, in this fifteenth edition, to Susan C. Alberts, Jeanne Altmann and Marlene Zuk for their outstanding contributions to the behavioral and evolutionary ecology of animals.
Altmann and Alberts have extended our understanding of the function and evolution of social behavior, with a particular emphasis on primates. Their names are inseparable from the Amboseli Baboon Project in Kenya, one of the longest-running field projects in animal behavior, dating back to 1971. Observations collected over five decades have followed over 2,000 individual baboons across several generations. Over time this study has expanded beyond social behavior, integrating field observations with analysis of endocrine and genetic data, and demonstrating the power of studying sociality, fertility, and mortality across the full life course of these wild animals. Altmann and Alberts’ longitudinal, intergenerational study of baboons has demonstrated that those baboons with powerful fathers and socially well connected mothers have the highest lifetime reproductive success.
Marlene Zuk’s research explores the role of behavioral interactions in animal evolution and addresses how interactions between males and females or between parasites and their hosts explain sexual selection and mate choice, leading to diversification of species over time. Zuk’s work provides new insights into the ornamentation and behaviors of male animals that Charles Darwin was unable to fully explain. She showed that the elaborate tails of male birds and the songs of male crickets provide honest signals of fitness to potential mates. Her work has demonstrated that females choose healthier, more ornamented mates, and has established that parasites and disease are pervasive in shaping animal behavior, ecology and evolution.