Meerkats - Happy Families?

03 June 2007

Interview with

Professor Tim Clutton-Brock, Cambridge University

Now to the Kalahari Desert and the study of the most co-operative mammals of all, the Meerkats.But what's the basis of their society and how is it organised? We spoke to Professor Tim Clutton-Brock from Cambridge University about his work with the Kalahari Meerkat Project.a MeerkatTim - I've worked on Meerkats now for 13 years and we've managed to tame up, habituate, 14 different groups of Meerkats so we have about 300 animals in the Kalahari which is where we work, and each of those groups, the groups of somewhere between 10 and 40 animals in each group, each has a separate territory of about somewhere between five and ten square kilometres. And we can recognise all those individuals and we have got them so tame that they'll actually climb onto electronic balances at request, so we've trained the Meerkats for crumbs of hardboiled egg to get onto the balances.Chris - What are you ultimately hoping to find out by doing this?Tim - I think the single focus of the study is why they're so co-operative, so the Meerkats are arguably the most co-operative mammal, perhaps it's a near-run thing between them and naked mole rats but Meerkats are very, very co-operative. One female in each group breeds and everyone else in the group helps to rear her pups, males and female group members, fully mature individuals, fully mature males, baby-sit the pups. They help to get food for the pups, they guard the pups, they go on guard in turn so the group is breeding as a unit not unlike an insect society.Chris - How do they decide who is the dominant female?Tim - When you remove a dominant female, all the potential other females compete like fury, they fight commonly, and then one finally emerges and she suppresses the others, she commonly evicts the main challengers over the next few months, and then she turns in and produces children over, oh, it can be five to ten years, so the group gradually becomes a dominant female and the male she's mated to and her children.Chris - So how do they persuade all of their other members of their colony to rear their own, well, the children of the animal that's breeding at the expense of breeding themselves?Tim - Well, that's a very good question. They stop the other females breeding so the presence of the dominant female actually suppresses their fertility so the others can't breed. If they do breed, and they do occasionally, the dominant female commonly kills and sometimes eats their pups.Chris - So that's a pheromonal suppression, is it?Tim - It's probably a pheromonal suppression. It may also be partly through direct interaction because the dominant females are aggressive towards the other females. The other way they help to suppress is that when at particular stages of the breeding cycle, they throw the oldest female subordinates out of the group so one way of getting your daughter to help in Meerkats society is to sling her out into the outside world so she sees just how tough that is and then when she comes back in she's prepared to do the washing up.Chris - I know a few humans who can benefit from that strategy, but quite complicated behaviour. Where do they get it from?Tim - I think the co-operation is associated with desert living and with diurnality, with the fact that they're active during the daytime and if you live in an open desert and you're active during the day, you're very, very susceptible to predators and you've got to come up with some way of combating predators and groups defend each other against predators, they put on guards to keep an eye out, they keep a huge network of burrows as escape systems from predators, so the group is very, very important in keeping predators out.

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