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Photograph by Mattias Klum

Meerkats: The Zoological Jackpot

By Cathy Newman

It’s easy to be a successful animal researcher, says zoologist Tim Clutton-Brock. Find the perfect subject. He ticks off a list of animals a researcher would do well to avoid.

• Animals whose lifestyles are hidden from view like those that live in burrows, those that live up in trees, or those that live underwater.

• Nocturnal animals. Why lose sleep?

• Dangerous animals. Why lose life or limb?

• Animals with long life spans. Pity the researcher who studies the Galapagos tortoise; his subject may well outlive him.

If there’s a touch of naughty schoolboy in the list, well, why not? “There’s a body of literature that suggests that successful scientists are commonly juvenile and childish,” Clutton-Brock says, who, to tell the truth, looks somewhat juvenile himself. He has a round choirboy face, blue eyes with a glint of irreverence, and a boyish tousle of graying hair.

It happens that the three species that Clutton-Brock has spent his career studying fit his criteria for the perfect subject as neatly as a tailored suit. In 1972 he started a 28-year-long study of red deer on the island of Rhum, a small island off the north coast of Scotland. (The island is treeless; the deer easy to observe.) A decade later he focused on Soay sheep, an archaic breed, on St. Kilda, one of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides Islands. (Sheep don’t live in burrows or in trees.) His most recent object of study, the meerkat, is the most obliging subject of all. In 1993, when Clutton-Brock first started studying the animal, which lives in the South African Kalahari Desert, he realized he had hit the zoological jackpot.

“They’re easier than sheep or deer. You can walk right into the middle of a group, and they’ll look right through you.” In the ultimate gesture of accommodation, they even hop up on the scale for weighing.

When not in the hot, dusty Kalahari studying meerkats, Clutton-Brock inhabits the cool, neatly pruned world of the University of Cambridge where he is professor of animal ecology and a fellow of Magdalene College. As they say in the animal world, he is equally adapted to both habitats.

The art of science is the art of asking questions as well as the art of finding ways to answer them. For Clutton-Brock, the most interesting questions are those that begin with “Why?”

“Questions of great beauty revolve around why,” he says, ticking off several that particularly intrigue him: Why does the extent of parental care vary so much between species? Why do only females care for eggs and young in some animals, only males in others? Why do some animals live in groups, and others not? Why do meerkats behave as they do?

So why—to use Clutton-Brock’s favorite word—spend years clocking the comings and goings of a small desert-dwelling creature, cute as a meerkat may be? Why study red deer or Soay sheep or swans or any animal for that matter?

“It’s a major human endeavor to understand the world around you,” he replies. Practical application may or may not follow, but good science is its own reward. To a scientist, research is as basic as breathing.

“The two things children should be taught as early as primary school are evolution and astronomy,” he says. “Astronomy teaches something about scale, and evolution teaches the idea of time.”

To understand the immensity of scale and the infinity of time helps us find footing in the slippery chaos of the world. Thus anchored, we may begin to ask questions like those Clutton-Brock loves so much: questions that begin with the beauty of “why?”

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