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Kuruman, South Africa

Thornton A.,University of Cambridge | Samson J.,Kalahari Meerkat Project
Animal Behaviour | Year: 2012

Behavioural innovations may have far-reaching evolutionary and ecological consequences, allowing individuals to obtain new resources and cope with environmental change. However, as innovations are rarely observed in nature, their emergence is poorly understood. What drives individuals to innovate, and what psychological mechanisms allow them to do so? We used three novel food extraction tasks to address these questions in groups of wild meerkats, Suricata suricatta. Innovatory tendencies were unrelated to body condition and foraging success, but were affected by age, rank and sex. Juvenile individuals were most likely to interact with tasks, but seldom solved them, perhaps owing to their small size or lack of dexterity. Instead, adult subordinates made up the bulk of the innovators. In cooperatively breeding societies, the inability of subordinate helpers to compete physically with dominant breeders may drive them to seek out solutions to novel problems. Most innovators were males, which, as the dispersing sex, may be particularly prone to solve novel problems, and innovators virtually always persisted longer than other group members when interacting with tasks. Most successful individuals solved tasks more than once, and learned to inhibit ineffective prepotent responses across successive presentations of the same task. They did not learn to manipulate functional parts of the apparatus more efficiently, however, nor did they extract general rules allowing them to solve novel tasks faster. Contrary to recent suggestions that innovation may be cognitively demanding, these results suggest that simple, conserved learning processes and dogged perseverance may suffice to generate solutions to novel problems. © 2012 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Source

Thavarajah N.K.,University of Cambridge | Fenkes M.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | Fenkes M.,University of Zurich | Clutton- Brock T.H.,University of Cambridge | Clutton- Brock T.H.,University of Pretoria
Behaviour | Year: 2014

In cooperatively breeding species with high reproductive skew, a single breeding female is dominant to all other group members, but it is not yet known if there are consistent dominance relationships among subordinates. In this study on meerkats (Suricata suricatta), we used naturally observed dominance assertions and submissive interactions within dyads of subordinate females to investigate: (i) whether or not a dominance structure exists among them and what factors influence dominance relationships; and (ii) how dominance may influence the future reproductive success of subordinate females. Our study indicates that superiority in age and weight provide a competitive advantage during conflicts among subordinate females and that females who consistently dominate in diese contests are subsequentiy more likely to attain a dominant breeding position. This provides a starting point for further investigations into dominance structure among subordinates in meerkat societies and other cooperative breeders. © 2014 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden. Source

Hoppitt W.,University of St. Andrews | Samson J.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | Laland K.N.,University of St. Andrews | Thornton A.,University of Cambridge
PLoS ONE | Year: 2012

Vigorous debates as to the evolutionary origins of culture remain unresolved due to an absence of methods for identifying learning mechanisms in natural populations. While laboratory experiments on captive animals have revealed evidence for a number of mechanisms, these may not necessarily reflect the processes typically operating in nature. We developed a novel method that allows social and asocial learning mechanisms to be determined in animal groups from the patterns of interaction with, and solving of, a task. We deployed it to analyse learning in groups of wild meerkats (Suricata suricatta) presented with a novel foraging apparatus. We identify nine separate learning processes underlying the meerkats' foraging behaviour, in each case precisely quantifying their strength and duration, including local enhancement, emulation, and a hitherto unrecognized form of social learning, which we term 'observational perseverance'. Our analysis suggests a key factor underlying the stability of behavioural traditions is a high ratio of specific to generalized social learning effects. The approach has widespread potential as an ecologically valid tool to investigate learning mechanisms in natural groups of animals, including humans. © 2012 Hoppitt et al. Source

Thornton A.,University of Cambridge | Samson J.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | Clutton-Brock T.,University of Cambridge
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences | Year: 2010

Reports of socially transmitted traditions based on behavioural differences between geographically separated groups of conspecifics are contentious because they cannot exclude genetic or environmental causes. Here, we report persistent differences between neighbouring groups of meerkats (Suricata suricatta) where extensive gene flow precludes genetic differentiation. Over 11 years, some groups consistently emerged later from their sleeping burrows in the morning than others, despite complete turnovers in group membership and the influx of immigrants. Group territories overlapped and, in many cases, the same sleeping burrows were used by different groups. Differences persisted even after accounting for effects of group size, weather and burrow characteristics, and were unrelated to food availability within territories. These results provide compelling evidence that the emergence times of meerkat groups represent conservative traditions. © 2010 The Royal Society. Source

Santema P.,University of Cambridge | Teitel Z.,University of Cambridge | Manser M.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | Manser M.,University of Zurich | And 2 more authors.
Behavioral Ecology | Year: 2013

Although the ultimate causes for variation in contributions to helping in cooperative breeders are increasingly well understood, the underlying physiological mechanisms remain largely unknown. Recent work has suggested that glucocorticoids may play an important role in the expression of cooperative behavior. Here, we present the first experimental test of the effects of glucocorticoids on helper behavior in a cooperative breeder. Glucocorticoid levels of adult female and male meerkat, Suricata suricatta, helpers were elevated with an intramuscular injection of cortisol (hydrocortisone 21-hemisuccinate sodium salt) dissolved in saline, whereas matched controls simultaneously received an injection of physiological saline. The treatment successfully elevated circulating glucocorticoid levels but did not result in significant changes in pup feeding or sentinel behavior. Females, however, spent less time foraging when glucocorticoid levels were elevated and appeared to spend more time in close proximity to pups. These results provide no evidence that glucocorticoids affect cooperative behaviors but suggest that there may be an effect on foraging effort and affiliation with pups. © 2013 © The Author 2013. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology. All rights reserved. Source

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