Research suggests meerkat predator-scanning behaviour is altruistic

Feb 04, 2013

In order to spot potential predators, adult meerkats often climb to a higher vantage point or stand on their hind legs. If a predator is detected, they use several different alarm calls to warn the rest of the group. New Cambridge research shows that they are more likely to exhibit this behaviour when there are young pups present, suggesting that the predator-scanning behaviour is for the benefit of the group rather than the individual.

are a cooperatively breeding species, with a dominant breeding pair and up to 40 'helpers' of both sexes who do not normally breed but instead assist with a number of cooperative activities such as babysitting and feeding of offspring.

However, scientists have questioned whether sentinel behaviour, when helper meerkats climb to a high point to scan for predators, and other vigilance behaviour, such as standing on their , is done for their own preservation (with the group's increased safety being an indirect consequence) or if the primary goal is altruistic, with the main purpose being the protection of the group.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
In order to spot potential predators, adult meerkats often climb to a higher vantage point or stand on their hind legs. If a predator is detected, they use several different alarm calls to warn the rest of the group. New Cambridge research shows that they are more likely to exhibit this behavior when there are young pups present, suggesting that the predator-scanning behavior is for the benefit of the group rather than the individual. Credit: University of Cambridge

Peter Santema, a at the University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology, said: "You see similar behaviour in a range of mammal and , and we know from previous work that other group members are less likely to be attacked by predators when someone is on guard. Biologists have been debating, however, whether the protection that other group members enjoy is just a side-effect or one of the reasons why individuals perform these guarding ."

For the research, which was funded by the BBSRC, scientists observed non-breeding helpers in the period just before the dominant female's pups had joined the group on foraging trips. They repeated the observations immediately after the pups joined the group. When they compared the results, they found that after the pups had joined the group on foraging trips, helpers showed a sudden increase in their vigilance behaviour.

Santema added: "These results are exciting, as they show us that individuals are not just on the look-out for their own safety, but that the protection of other group members is another motivation for these behaviours. Our results thus suggest that and sentinel behaviour in meerkats represent forms of cooperation."

Explore further: Rare new species of plant: Stachys caroliniana

More information: The paper 'Meerkat helpers increase sentinel behaviour and bipedal vigilance in the presence of pups' will be published in the 05 February 2013 edition of Animal Behaviour.

Related Stories

Sexual Selection Not Just for Males Anymore

Jan 10, 2007

The antlers of a bull elk, the great bulk of a male elephant seal, the lion’s mane, have all evolved due to competition for reproductive success. These products of “sexual selection” are typically found ...

Meerkats have ability to distinguish different voices

Oct 13, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Vocal recognition is widespread in primates but a new study, published in Biology Letters, provides evidence that it may not be limited to humans and primates. The ability to recognize the vo ...

Mother's little helpers

Aug 16, 2007

An Australian bird has been found to produce smaller, less nourishing eggs when it breeds in the presence of other ‘helper’ birds that provide child-care assistance. This unique adaptation enables the ...

Fairy wrens: Accountants of the animal kingdom

Mar 18, 2011

A puzzling example of altruism in nature has been debunked with researchers showing that purple-crowned fairy wrens are in reality cunningly planning for their own future when they assist in raising other ...

Assessing safety through vocal cues

Apr 13, 2007

For the first time foraging birds have been shown to use vocal cues, rather than vision, to gain information on both the size of the group they are in and their spatial position within that group.

Recommended for you

Scanning robot helps put insect collection online

3 hours ago

A robot capable of scanning a tray of insect specimens in a few minutes will help make the virtual images and tagging information available to the public online, according to South Dakota State University ...

New mushroom discovered on campus is the first since 1985

3 hours ago

Two researchers who recently named the first new species of mushroom from the UC Berkeley campus in more than 30 years are emphasizing the need for continued green and open space on campus, as well as a full-fledged ...

Rare new species of plant: Stachys caroliniana

Nov 21, 2014

The exclusive club of explorers who have discovered a rare new species of life isn't restricted to globetrotters traveling to remote locations like the Amazon rainforests, Madagascar or the woodlands of the ...

Mysterious glowworm found in Peruvian rainforest

Nov 21, 2014

(Phys.org) —Wildlife photographer Jeff Cremer has discovered what appears to be a new type of bioluminescent larvae. He told members of the press recently that he was walking near a camp in the Peruvian ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Squirrel
not rated yet Feb 05, 2013
Not necessarily. Predators will variably focus upon meerkats vs other prey depending upon success in catching them. Since meerkat pups are easy to catch, its in an individual meerkat's selfish interests to stop potential predators catching them and shifting their focus in the future upon meerkats rather than other prey. No meerkat wants a predator hanging around because it tasted a young meerkat--it--however old--could be next on its menu.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.