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FAQ: Meerkat biology and behaviour
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This site gives answers to the most frequently asked questions about meerkat biology and meerkat behaviour.

 

Questions to the FKMP, and the KMP researchers, can be asked by Friends - click here (login needed).


What is the life span of a meerkat?
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Their average life span in the wild is about 10 years with many not making the first year. The KMP's oldest meerkat ‘Mabili’ had reached almost 13 years. She had been dominant for many years, and kept having pups until she died, although at a slower rate.

Meerkats who do not become dominant will rarely make it past their 3rd year. There are exceptions to this rule however, mostly with siblings of dominant animals.

In captivity meerkats can live up to 15 years.

 

For more details on the meerkat's life cycle click here.

 


How does a meerkat become dominant in a group, and how long does the dominance usually last?
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He or she fights for dominance. In theory, there is no such thing as inherited dominance – though in reality some lines tend to be stronger than others, and daughters of dominant females have higher chances to become dominant than their cousins.


Females fight harder than males to become dominant, but females retain their status longer (31 months in average) and have more pups during their reign than males (17 months in average).

 

Females that acquire dominant status develop morphological, physiological and behavioural characteristics that help them to control other group members: they get heavier and more aggressive; no such changes can be observed in males after becoming dominant. Females thus become more capable of controlling development of their rivals, i.e. the subordinate native females, and so strengthen their tenure. The male’s competition however is usually in the form of immigrants from other groups whose development cannot be controlled. (Details here).

 


Are the dominant male and female always unrelated?
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It is often the case that meerkat groups have native dominant males (i.e. males related to the females in the group), usually after a dominant male died. These native dominant males – brothers or sons of the females – can show the full range of male dominance behaviour (scent-marking, mate-guarding of females in oestrus etc.), but they will not mate. If no female is in oestrus, the natal dominant male will also rove.

Based on the KMP's data there are mating dominants who are as closely related as aunt and nephew, though usually not brother and sister. However, there are many questions in this area where there are no answers yet. The following fact is interesting to note, however: In the case where siblings were separated as pups and grew up in different groups, sisters have always been seen to refuse their brother's mating attempts. 

 


How do the dominant female and dominant male find each other, if they are not related?
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In most cases, the dominant female is found by the male, and not vice versa – she is a dominant female of her native group, and he joins the group as a rover from another group.

It also does happen that subordinate males go roving together and meet a group of evicted females - and this is when a new group can form. There have been several examples of this in the KMP.

  


If a dominant animal dies, who will assume the dominant role?
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If the dominant female dies, there will usually be a dominance fight amongst the remaining females. The highest probability of winning a fight is with the older or heavier competitor, but it was also shown that daughters of the dominant female have a higher chance of winning over daughters of subordinate females – a fact that is not true for their brothers. Notable is that survival rates of pups are very low in times of dominance fights after the death of the dominant female, until dominance is re-established. However, it may also happen that the group splits, or even breaks apart, after the death of its leader. The widowed male leaves the group in 3 out of 4 cases after the death of his mate, as his daughters won’t breed with him, and won’t allow non-related females into the group.

If the dominant male dies, the dominant female retains her post in 60% of the cases, and will eventually be joined by a roving male. In well-established groups with a high number of subordinate native males, rovers have to fight harder – or even fight in vain – to be accepted into the group, but in most cases the resident males eventually disperse to find mating opportunities. It does happen that one of the native males establishes himself as dominant male who will guard his mother and the group showing the same behaviour characteristics as any other dominant male, but he will in most cases not mate with his mother and will be displaced by an immigrant male at a later stage. At the KMP it was seen that females have remained dominant, without established dominant breeding partner, for longer than two years. More details can be found here.

 


Why does the dominant female evict other females when she’s pregnant? What means are there to suppress subordinate females from getting pregnant?
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This is still a very much debated research question, and two articles were recently published by the KMP (see here and here). The dominant female does influence fertility and breeding success of the other adult females in the group by means of evictions. The KMP researchers found that the evictions stress the subordinate females so much that they are less likely to be fertile.

Evictions by the pregnant dominant female are mainly targeted at older or pregnant subordinate females, and more distantly related females. They occur most frequently in the 20 days before the dominant female gives birth. Evictees remain in the group’s territory and try to join their family again, but are repeatedly attacked by the dominant female and the rest of the group. It has been shown that this leads to weight loss and higher stress hormone levels, but more importantly eviction doubles the probability for an abortion in case the evicted female was pregnant, and it results in a severely impaired ability of the evicted female to successfully conceive. In most cases, evictees are allowed back into the group a few days after pup birth – at a time when pups are considered too old for infanticide by the subordinate.

Based on KMP research, there are two probable reasons for evictions:

 

  • The dominant removes competition for her own pups, since it increases the helper/pup ratio and thus the pups’ chance to survive (details here and here).
  • The risk of a pregnant subordinate killing the dominant’s newborn pups is reduced (either because the subordinate cannot reach the pups, or because she is no longer pregnant due to abortion).

 

 


Can lone meerkats (evicted females or rovers) join other groups?
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Chances for rovers to join another group (e.g. after a dominant male’s death) are higher for rover groups (“coalitions”). It does happen however that a male meerkat is allowed into a group, e.g. where males from his natal group are in charge. There even have been cases where an unrelated male was allowed into a group and stayed subordinate.

However, chances that a single female makes her way into an established healthy group are minimal – the KMP researchers observed one successful immigration of a single adult female into a big healthy group, in the past 14 years. Chances for single females to join other meerkats arise mostly at the time a new group is formed, when sisters are evicted from their natal group and eventually find together again, to combine with rovers.

 


For how long can an evicted meerkat or a lone rover survive on his/her own?
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The KMP researchers have seen that single meerkats can survive for up to a year, or longer, depending on food availability, pregnancies etc.

 


Does anyone in a group do babysitting? How is it decided who the babysitter will be?
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Every adult meerkat except for the dominant female does babysit. She needs to forage in order to lactate to the pups, so she cannot afford to stay at the burrow.

 

The question about who babysits is not really answered. KMP studies showed that the decision by male helpers to babysit or feed pups has a hormonal basis; the reason for this hormonal change is not known however (details see here and here).

 


Does everyone participate in pup raising? Do helpers prefer pups that are closely related to themselves?
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Meerkats usually feed and guard pups irrespective of how closely related they are, as long as they belong to the group. It is not known, presently, if and how meerkats can tell the level of relatedness, and if a “group perfume” is stronger than such a presumed “relatives’ mark”. It was shown however, that the nutritional status of a helper influences his feeding activity (details here), and that the helper sometimes decides to eat prey himself especially if the pup just had food (details here).

What could be shown is that rovers generally contribute less to helper duties. This was the subject of a PhD by Andrew Young, and these were his results :

1. Males who go roving a lot not only miss their pup feeding duties while they're away roving. They also do less pup feeding when they are back. And the more they rove, the worse their pup feeding becomes.
2. The reasons for this might be their weight loss due to roving, as well as elevated testosterone levels. Both states have been shown (in meerkats and elsewhere) to decrease care for offspring.
3. The other group members do not punish bad pup-feeders. The other group members just increase their own pup-feeding activity to compensate. It might be that it is beneficial to all of them if the group's genes are spread. So with meerkats, both activities are considered worthy. For more details see here.

 


What are the differences between a burrow and a bolt hole?
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Burrows are extensive underground tunnel systems with several chambers and entrances. They are used for cover and warmth at night, and serve as birth chambers. Bolt holes are the main shelter in case of a predator attack. Meerkats usually occupy and expand holes dug by other animals (e.g. ground squirrels, aardvarks, pangolins) and sometimes even share burrows with other species. Burrow and bolt hole maintenance is an important activity done by the whole group. An average group territory of 2-4 km2 usually holds 5-20 sleeping burrows and 2000+ bolt holes, one each 30-40 m.

It is interesting to note the meerkats seem to have a clear knowledge of the bolt hole and burrow locations. In case of an alarm, they run to the closest bolt hole, but not necessarily to one they just passed while foraging; they seem to have a memory of locations, e.g. in relation to landmarks (details here).

 


Where do the meerkats drink when there is no water in the desert?
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The meerkats don't need extra water as long as they have succulent little insects and reptiles to devour – but they still like to drink once water is available. There are several dams in the Kuruman River Reserve, coming from its past as a cattle farm. Now the dams are used by the KMP's game when the Kuruman River is dry.

 


Do meerkats shed and blow winter coat like other animals at various times of the year?
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Yes, meerkats do wear a winter coat, their fur almost doubles in length, and gets thicker. Winter in the Kalahari means temperatures around freezing at night, and above 30°C during the day.

 


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