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Meerkat predator-​scanning behav­iour is altru­is­tic, research suggests

pub­lished 06 Feb­ru­ary 2013 | mod­i­fied 06 Feb­ru­ary 2013
rotterdamzoo07In 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. The research was pub­lished Feb­ru­ary 5 in the jour­nal Ani­mal Behav­iour.

Meerkats 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.

Our results […] sug­gest that vig­i­lance and sen­tinel behav­iour in meerkats rep­re­sent forms of cooperation
Peter San­tema, PhD stu­dent, the Uni­ver­sity of Cambridge’s Depart­ment of Zool­ogy »

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 hind legs, 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.

Peter San­tema, a PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Cambridge’s Depart­ment of Zool­ogy, said: “You see sim­i­lar behav­iour in a range of mam­mal and bird species, 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 behav­iours.”

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 vig­i­lance and sen­tinel behav­iour in meerkats rep­re­sent forms of coop­er­a­tion.”

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge Research News, 04.02.2013)
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