Kalahari Meerkat Project

Kuruman, South Africa

Kalahari Meerkat Project

Kuruman, South Africa
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Leclaire S.,University of Cambridge | Leclaire S.,CNRS Biological Evolution and Diversity Laboratory | Nielsen J.F.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | Nielsen J.F.,University of Edinburgh | And 3 more authors.
Behavioral Ecology | Year: 2014

The contribution of bacterial fermentation to the production of vertebrate scent signals has long been suspected, but there is still relatively little information about the factors driving variation in microbial composition in animal scent secretions. Our study subject, the meerkat (Suricata suricatta), is a social mongoose that lives in territorial, family groups and relies heavily on scent for social communication. Unusually in mammalian research, extensive life-history data exist for multiple groups inhabiting the same ecosystem, allowing for a study of both individual variation and group differences in the host's microbial communities. Using a culture-independent sampling technique, we explored the relationship between a signaler's sex, age/dominance, genotype or group membership, and the microbiota of its anal scent secretions. We found differences in the microbiota of males and females, but only after the animals had reached sexual maturity. Although bacterial communities in meerkat scent secretions were not more similar between kin than between nonkin, they were more similar between members of the same group than between members of different groups. Collectively, these results are consistent with a potential role for reproductive hormones in determining a host's bacterial assemblages, as well as an influence of sociality (such as intragroup allo-marking behavior) and/or microhabitat in the acquisition of bacterial assemblages. This study provides a key starting point for understanding the role of microbes in the variation of scent composition in mammals. © 2014 The Author.


Bateman A.W.,University of Cambridge | Bateman A.W.,University of Alberta | Lewis M.A.,University of Alberta | Gall G.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | And 4 more authors.
Journal of Animal Ecology | Year: 2015

Summary: Multiple approaches exist to model patterns of space use across species, among them resource selection analysis, statistical home-range modelling and mechanistic movement modelling. Mechanistic home-range models combine the benefits of these approaches, describing emergent territorial patterns based on fine-scale individual- or group-movement rules and incorporating interactions with neighbours and the environment. These models have not, to date, been extended to dynamic contexts. Using mechanistic home-range models, we explore meerkat (Suricata suricatta) territorial patterns, considering scent marking, direct group interactions and habitat selection. We also extend the models to accommodate dynamic aspects of meerkat territoriality (territory development and territory shift). We fit models, representing multiple working hypotheses, to data from a long-term meerkat study in South Africa, and we compare models using Akaike's and Bayesian Information Criteria. Our results identify important features of meerkat territorial patterns. Notably, larger groups do not seem to control larger territories, and groups apparently prefer dune edges along a dry river bed. Our model extensions capture instances in which 1) a newly formed group interacts more strongly with its parent groups over time and 2) a group moves its territory core out of aversive habitat. This extends our mechanistic modelling framework in previously unexplored directions. © 2014 British Ecological Society.


Bell M.B.V.,University of Cambridge | Bell M.B.V.,University of Edinburgh | Cant M.A.,University of Exeter | Borgeaud C.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | And 6 more authors.
Nature Communications | Year: 2014

In many animal societies, a small proportion of dominant females monopolize reproduction by actively suppressing subordinates. Theory assumes that this is because subordinate reproduction depresses the fitness of dominants, yet the effect of subordinate reproduction on dominant behaviour and reproductive success has never been directly assessed. Here, we describe the consequences of experimentally preventing subordinate breeding in 12 groups of wild meerkats (Suricata suricatta) for three breeding attempts, using contraceptive injections. When subordinates are prevented from breeding, dominants are less aggressive towards subordinates and evict them less often, leading to a higher ratio of helpers to dependent pups, and increased provisioning of the dominant's pups by subordinate females. When subordinate breeding is suppressed, dominants also show improved foraging efficiency, gain more weight during pregnancy and produce heavier pups, which grow faster. These results confirm the benefits of suppression to dominants, and help explain the evolution of singular breeding in vertebrate societies. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.


Thavarajah N.K.,University of Cambridge | Fenkes M.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | Fenkes M.,University of Zürich | 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.


Leclaire S.,University of Cambridge | Nielsen J.F.,University of Edinburgh | Nielsen J.F.,UK Institute of Zoology | Thavarajah N.K.,University of Cambridge | And 3 more authors.
Biology Letters | Year: 2013

Kin recognition is a useful ability for animals, facilitating cooperation among relatives and avoidance of excessive kin competition or inbreeding. In meerkats, Suricata suricatta, encounters between unfamiliar kin are relatively frequent, and kin recognition by phenotype matching is expected to avoid inbreeding with close relatives. Here, we investigate whether female meerkats are able to discriminate the scent of unfamiliar kin from unfamiliar non-kin. Dominant females were presented with anal gland secretion from unfamiliar individuals that varied in their relatedness. Our result indicates that females spent more time investigating the scent of related than unrelated unfamiliar individuals, suggesting that females may use a phenotype matching mechanism (or recognition alleles) to discriminate the odour of their kin from the odour of their non-kin. Our study provides a key starting point for further investigations into the use of kin recognition for inbreeding avoidance in the widely studied meerkat. © 2012 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.


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.


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.


Santema P.,University of Cambridge | Teitel Z.,University of Cambridge | Manser M.,Kalahari Meerkat Project | Manser M.,University of Zürich | 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.


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.


PubMed | University of Alberta, Kalahari Meerkat Project and University of Cambridge
Type: Journal Article | Journal: The Journal of animal ecology | Year: 2015

Multiple approaches exist to model patterns of space use across species, among them resource selection analysis, statistical home-range modelling and mechanistic movement modelling. Mechanistic home-range models combine the benefits of these approaches, describing emergent territorial patterns based on fine-scale individual- or group-movement rules and incorporating interactions with neighbours and the environment. These models have not, to date, been extended to dynamic contexts. Using mechanistic home-range models, we explore meerkat (Suricata suricatta) territorial patterns, considering scent marking, direct group interactions and habitat selection. We also extend the models to accommodate dynamic aspects of meerkat territoriality (territory development and territory shift). We fit models, representing multiple working hypotheses, to data from a long-term meerkat study in South Africa, and we compare models using Akaikes and Bayesian Information Criteria. Our results identify important features of meerkat territorial patterns. Notably, larger groups do not seem to control larger territories, and groups apparently prefer dune edges along a dry river bed. Our model extensions capture instances in which 1) a newly formed group interacts more strongly with its parent groups over time and 2) a group moves its territory core out of aversive habitat. This extends our mechanistic modelling framework in previously unexplored directions.

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