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Studying Meerkats

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By Tim Clutton-BrockPhotographs by Mattias Klum



The meerkat motto: You get by with a little help from your friends. Welcome to the strange social life of one of Africa's most beloved carnivores.



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Meerkats make ideal study subjects because they are only active during the day. Also, perhaps because they are prey to a large variety of birds and mammals—over half the adult meerkats in our population were killed each year—they quickly learn to recognize danger and to ignore animals that do not pose a threat. Humans, with time and patience, generally fall in the latter category, and meerkats come to accept them completely.

As we sat beside their burrows in the cold Kalahari mornings, the meerkats sheltered behind us from the keen dawn wind. When no stumps were close by, tamer individuals would sometimes climb up our backs and take their turns as sentinels from our shoulders or heads. The more they trusted us, the closer we were able to get. We collected skin and hair samples for genetic analysis, spooned up their droppings to measure their levels of sex hormones, and, using crumbs of hard-boiled egg as an incentive, trained them to climb onto electronic scales.

This long-term study, from 1993 to 1998, grew out of my belief that meerkats might offer vital insights into the evolution of mammalian cooperation. According to evolutionary logic, an individual's success is usually measured by the number of offspring it raises, but some meerkats spend part or all of their lives helping others raise young rather than breeding themselves. Such seemingly altruistic behavior can be found in very few mammals, but even within this select group, which includes mole rats, marmosets, wild dogs, and some other mongooses, meerkats are unique in the extent and coordination of their cooperative activities. 

Meerkats' unusual system of rearing their young poses questions that go to the roots of our understanding of cooperative societies, including our own. Why do mature offspring remain in their parents' group instead of dispersing to breed? Why do they take risks and spend time and effort to help other members breed? How do group members divide their responsibilities and coordinate their contributions? And how do they ensure that all group members pull their weight?

Few of our closest relatives, the great apes, cooperate with each other as extensively as meerkats. Human cooperation probably has an ancient history, and by studying meerkats, which depend on their group for survival, we gain a window into the evolution of cooperative societies.

Our research on these issues progressed steadily until, two years into the study, disaster struck. The irregular rainfall of the Kalahari failed completely, and the remaining grasses in the park shriveled and died. Twisters cruised up and down the riverbed, and the springbok and wildebeests left to search for the last remnants of grass in the dunes. At first the meerkats hung on, digging for beetles and scorpions in the loose sand, but gradually their condition deteriorated and they were forced to forage farther and farther from bolt-holes—quick-escape burrows scattered throughout their range—and spend more and more of their time without the protection of sentinels.



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Online Extra
Find out why author and zoologist Tim Clutton-Brock loves to ask "why?"

Sights & Sounds
Posted sentinels? A babysitting service? Join photographer Mattias Klum and delve into the intriguing world of meerkats.

multimedia

VIDEO Mattias Klum talks about the natural behavior of meerkats in this video interview.

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Let this meerkat nibble its way into your heart and onto your desktop.

Final Edit

The photo rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit.


More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?

Southern Africa is alive with a dozen different species of mongooses, and all seem to be thriving. Still, according to Cambridge University's Tim Clutton-Brock, our article's author, the meerkat is the cutest mongoose of them all. "Its eyes sit closer together, and it stands on its hind legs a lot," says Clutton-Brock. Meerkats often group together, alert eyes scanning the horizon—like people at a bus stop waiting for the next arrival. The yellow mongoose, a rival for territory and a threat to meerkat pups, looks more like a tiny fox and has less congenial ways. The dwarf mongoose, the smallest mongoose in Africa, is as social as the meerkat but lacks its captivating face and personality. The same can be said for the few other social mongooses that live and breed in groups. The majority, from savanna to forest, are uncooperative loners, hunting for reptiles, bugs, even small mammals and fish on their own.

—Jeanne E. Peters

Did You Know?

Related Links
Fellow Earthlings' Wildlife Center
www.meerkats.com/about.html
Visit a home for orphaned, injured, sick, or old meerkats that have outgrown their zoo life. Located in Morongo Valley, California, the center educates the public about meerkat biology and behavior and cares for unwanted animals through donations. 

Meerkat Mug Shots
www.homepage.mac.com/rstacy/meerkatswild.html
Browse a photo portfolio of meerkat babies and adults at play, digging, standing around, and generally looking cute.

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Bibliography
Clutton-Brock, T. H., and others. "Effects of Helpers on Juvenile Development and Survival in Meerkats," Science (September 28, 2001), 2446-2449.

Clutton-Brock, T. H., and others. "Selfish Sentinels in Cooperative Mammals," Science (June 4, 1999), 1640-1644.

Macdonald, David. Meerkats. New Holland Publishers, 1999.

O'Riain, Justin. "Desert despots," Africa Geographic (August 2001), 68-75.  

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NGS Resources
La Fleur, Brian. "Family Value," National Geographic World (March 2002), 2-3.

Setzer, Henry W. "What Is a Mammal?," National Geographic Book of Mammals, 1998.

"All For One: Meerkats," National Geographic World (August 1998), 14-19.

McGrath, Susan. Amazing Things Animals Do. National Geographic Books, 1989.

Grosvenor, Donna K. Zoo Babies. National Geographic Books, 1978.

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