EXTRAORDINARY LIVES OF KALAHARI MEERKATS

Meerkats are highly social creatures known for living in tight-knit family groups. I spent a year in the Kalahari Desert, capturing their unique co-operative behaviour, from the iconic “sentry” duty, to the lesser known ways they work together to take care of their young pups and survive in the harsh environment.

Photography & Author: Robin Hoskyns

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Faint squeaks emanate from the sandy burrow, and as I peer into the dark hole I can just about make out a couple of tiny faces. My heart beats a little faster as I realize that these are the new pups that have been underground since their birth two weeks ago. Most of the group are up already but there are a couple of late risers, unusual for this group who are normally the first to be up and about.

I keep still and watch them slowly emerge. One, two, three and finally a fourth, still unstable on their feet, eyes barely open, the pups paw the sand around the burrow mouth. The last couple of adults leave the burrow and although they stay close, they don’t seem too worried as I slowly extend my hand towards them, letting them get used to my scent.

For twelve months, I was part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa, an incredible opportunity to work in depth with a single species. A whole year spent following the lives of habituated groups, seeing their struggles and successes on a daily basis, watching them rise with the sun and disappear below ground when darkness falls.

Habituation starts early in a meerkat’s life at the project. Several generations have emerged from the burrow for the first time to find a human sitting with a notebook. It’s hard to imagine what the meerkats make of the people that have followed their entire lives, however I like to think that they see the researchers as part of the habitat, like a kind of moving tree. At least, that is how it feels when one scrambles up your back to use your head as a vantage point.

Back at the burrow, the group are getting impatient, and the sun is getting hot. They start to move off leaving behind the babysitters to watch over the pups. I stay on a little longer to let the pups continue getting used to my presence. I watch them as they slowly explore their surroundings, staying close to one another. After about twenty minutes the babysitters have had enough and retreat back into the burrow, taking the pups with them, leaving me to track down the rest of the group.

Meerkats have many interesting behaviors. Sentinel duty is the best known and most photographed. One meerkat will take it upon itself to climb up onto a log or tree to get a better view, and it will then inform the rest of the group if the coast is clear with a continuous series of squeaks. Exactly how it is decided who takes the risk of being lookout is still a mystery although better fed meerkats are more likely to step up. The apparently selfless nature of this behavior is one of many indicators that meerkats’ group living is more complex than it may first seem.

Altruistic behaviors are very interesting to a biologist. Helping others involves using resources that would otherwise benefit yourself. At first glance this seems contrary to the laws of natural selection, which are all about competing with other individuals to produce the most offspring. It is this apparent paradox that makes meerkats so interesting to study.

Generally, most, if not all other individuals in the group will be the offspring of this matriarch and an alpha male. This relatedness between members of the group and the power dominant females exert is at the heart of the paradox presented by ‘helping’ behaviors.

Meerkats’ social nature is also shaped by the harsh realities of life in the desert. Lone meerkats have a very low survival rate so the pressure to stay in the group is immense.

Dominant females are the most important individuals in a meerkat group and will often use the threat of eviction to make sure that everyone helps out, ensuring that she alone produces the most offspring.

By helping others in the group meerkats are still indirectly benefiting their own genes.

Co-operation and helping behaviors are at the core of research at the Kalahari Meerkat Project and there is still much to discover about the mechanisms driving their unique behavior. I was able to capture many of these behaviors on camera, as well as witness a handful of far more rare events, such as when a group spent six hours fighting over a clutch of tortoise eggs and couldn’t even crack them open!

Two great examples of meerkats’ distinctive helping behaviors are allogrooming and allolactating. Co-operative grooming between two or more individuals is called ‘allogrooming,’ and is thought to increase social bonds between group members, as well as remove parasites from those hard to reach places. Meanwhile, ‘allolactating’ is a behavior where subordinate females produce milk to feed the dominant female’s pups, acting as a wet nurse. Unusually in the animal kingdom, this can occur even if the subordinate female has never been pregnant.

Babysitting is also a key behavior for subordinates within the group. While the pups are still young, between one and three adults will stay at the burrow to care for newly born pups whilst the rest of the group is out foraging for the entire day. Both males and females babysit, however subordinate females at risk of eviction will contribute more and it is rare for the dominant female to babysit her own pups.

As they grow bigger and more confident, meerkat pups will regularly play-fight with one another. It is possible that this can help them to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and those of their siblings within the group. In times when food is plentiful even adult members of the group will join in with the play.

Juvenile meerkats watch adults foraging to learn which prey types are best, and how to handle the more dangerous prey. Scorpions are a classic example. Adults will bring pups increasingly more intact scorpions as they develop the skills necessary to deal with them.

As well as deftly removing the stings and pincers from scorpions, meerkats also rub poisonous prey items like millipedes in the sand until most of the toxins have been excreted and brushed off, helping to make them more palatable. Youngsters have to develop the toolbox of skills required to deal with a variety of prey, vital in this harsh environment.

Working together is central to the meerkats’ existence. For instance, the process of co-operative digging is observed when meerkats are removing sand from a burrow. Each meerkat passes the sand back to the one behind, forming a chain of up to six or seven individuals. Incredibly, each meerkat can shift at least its own body-weight of sand in under a minute. In general, meerkats will change burrows every few days depending on the group and the territory, probably as a way to reduce parasite load.

Defending their territory is an important part of life, and individuals within the group are constantly on the lookout for intruders. When two rival meerkat groups meet, they run at each other, tails in the air, while springing up and down with a kind of rocking motion. These encounters rarely end in a full-blown fight as the smaller group usually flees.

Life in the desert can be harsh and challenging, even for a group of meerkats who work together to survive. When a predator is encountered the group will gather together to ‘mob’ the intruder. With hackles raised and tails erect the entire group will advance as one, hissing and spitting. This is usually a response to snake attack, but meerkats will also mob other small ground predators and even scent markings and faeces left by predators or rival groups.