Meerkats teach

I don't know if you have ever seen this show on Animal Planet -- Meerkat Manor. It is disgustingly cute. It is about a family of meerkats that were followed over several years.

Anyway, I love that show, so lately I have had meerkats on the brain.

Some other researchers are also apparently interested in meerkats. Publishing in the journal Science, they have recently shown that meerkats teach their young how to hunt.

i-6576f4bfc70a2257a3472359f1f14cef-meerkat.jpgThorton and McAuliffe examined hunting in meerkats. Meerkats eat basically anything they are bigger than -- as you will note if you watch the show above. This would include scorpions, many species of which can be quite dangerous to them. In order to acquaint the younger meerkats with how to hunt dangerous species like scorpions appropriately, the younger meerkats are assigned a helper whose job it is to provide them with dead or disabled examples.

The researchers found that the helpers varied the proportion of dead or disable prey as opposed to live prey in relation to the younger meerkats age. They would slowly increase the proportion of live prey as the meerkat got older.

Further, the researchers could experimentally vary the call of the younger meerkat to indicate that it was older or younger than it really was. If they varied the call of the younger meerkat to indicate an age older than it was, more live prey would be brought. If they varied the call of the younger meerkat to indicate an age younger than it was, more dead or disable prey would be brought.

To wit:

In this paper, we use a widely accepted [of teaching] functional definition developed by Caro and Hauser. This definition comprises three criteria: (i) an individual, A, modifies its behavior only in the presence of a naïve observer, B; (ii) A incurs some cost or derives no immediate benefit; and (iii) as a result of A's behavior, B acquires knowledge or skills more rapidly or efficiently than it would otherwise, or that it would not have learned at all. Teaching is thought to allow faster and more efficient information transfer than passive forms of social learning, but evidence for its existence in nonhuman animals is equivocal. To date, only one study provides firm evidence for teaching, and its occurrence in the wild remains unconfirmed.

We investigated whether teaching occurs in wild meerkats (Suricata suricatta), a species living in demanding environments where food acquisition involves considerable skill. Meerkats are obligate cooperative breeders living in groups of 2 to 40 individuals in the arid regions of southern Africa. Groups comprise a dominant male and female, who are the parents of over 80% of the pups in the group, and a variable number of helpers of both sexes that aid in rearing the young. Hereafter, all individuals over 3 months old are referred to as helpers. Pups are initially incapable of finding their own prey. They begin to follow foraging groups at around 30 days of age and are provisioned by all group members in response to begging calls until they reach nutritional independence at around 90 days of age.

Meerkats are opportunistic generalists, feeding on a range of vertebrate and invertebrate prey, many of which are difficult to handle and potentially dangerous to young pups. Scorpions of the genera Parabuthus and Opistophthalamus, which form up to 4.5% of total prey biomass for meerkats, may be particularly dangerous; the former possess neurotoxins potent enough to kill a human, whereas the latter have milder toxins but are more aggressive, defending themselves with large, powerful pincers.

Helpers typically kill or disable prey with rapid bites to the head or abdomen before provisioning pups. Scorpions are normally disabled by removing the sting. Helpers adjust the frequency with which they kill or disable mobile prey according to pup age, gradually introducing pups to live prey. The proportion of highly mobile prey fed when dead or disabled decreased with pup age (Fig. 1, A and B) while the proportion of prey fed intact increased (Fig. 1C) (controlling for characteristics of the pups, helpers, and prey) (18) (table S1). Scorpions were more likely to be provisioned dead or disabled (Fig. 1, A and B) and less likely to be provisioned intact (Fig. 1C) than were other items.

Helpers often fed pups that were out of sight (mean distance to pup = 5.4 m, range = 0 to 50 m, N = 1399 feeds), but pup begging calls can generally be heard by all individuals in the group. The acoustic parameters of begging calls are known to change with age. To investigate whether helpers modify prey in response to begging calls, we conducted playback experiments in which we broadcast begging calls of old pups (71 to 86 days old) to groups with young pups (28 to 37 days old) or vice versa. Begging calls of pups of the same age as those in the group were broadcast as controls. Helpers in groups with young pups fed significantly more intact prey when calls of older pups were broadcast than in control playbacks, and helpers in groups with old pups fed significantly more dead prey under experimental than control playbacks (Fig. 1, D and E). (Citations have been removed. Emphasis mine.)

The figure associated with the quote is below (click to enlarge):


The researchers also show that over time the younger meerkats ability to handle dangerous prey improves.

The significance of this research is two-fold:

1) One more thing knocked off the list of special human traits. We tend to think of teaching as an exclusively human trait. It turns out that it may be significantly more sophisticated (with PowerPoint and the like), but is certainly not unprecedented in the animal world.

2) You would think that teaching would require cognizance -- the ability to infer the mental states of others and move to rectify deficiencies in those states. It would appear that this is also unnecessary. Here is a quote from the authors on that subject:

It is often assumed that teaching requires awareness of the ignorance of pupils and a deliberate attempt to correct that ignorance, but viewed from a functional perspective, teaching can be based on simple mechanisms without the need for intentionality and the attribution of mental states. By differentially responding to the calls of pups of different ages, helpers may accelerate pups' learning of handling skills without the need for complex cognitive processes. (Citations removed. Emphasis mine.)


More like this

Some other researchers are also apparently interested in meerkats. Publishing in the journal Science, they have recently shown that meerkats teach their young how to hunt.

I think it's actually where all the Meerkat Manor footage comes from, it's essentially re-edited footage from the scientists studying the animals and narrated to tell a story. Probably a good way to generate extra funding.

plz send meercat infermations , for my studying purpose .....

i get for infermations and quickly ,so improve my knowlage to use studying purpose.

Hello - my name is Susan Crissman -I live in Reno,NV and I loved Flower so much. I would be ever happy to have a image of her for my profile. Thank you for your time, Susan