Meerkats Teach Pups How to Eat Risky Food, Study Says
for National Geographic News
|July 13, 2006|
Faced with a potentially deadly diet, adult meerkats teach their pups
how to deal with scorpions and other prey, a new study shows.
The behavior is the first hard evidence of active teaching by a nonhuman mammal, researchers say.
Chimpanzees and other mammals have been shown to teach their young passivelybabies learn by watching adults.
But adult meerkats in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa were observed devoting much time and effort to teaching pups how to handle tricky food itemsa task that carried no immediate advantage for the adults.
(Related photos: meerkats of the Kalahari.)
In addition to lizards, beetles, and millipedes, deadly scorpions are on the meerkats' menu.
Some of these scorpion species have enough venom to kill a human, while others are armed with powerful pincers.
Meerkats encourage their pups to practice killing and eating such risky meals by bringing the youngsters live prey, according to the study, done by researchers at the University of Cambridge in England.
The report, which will be published tomorrow in the journal Science, suggests that teaching may be much more widespread in animals than previously thought.
Taking Out the Sting
Meerkats are highly social mammals that live in groups of up to 40.
Each community has a dominant male and female which produce at least 80 percent of the pups, says lead study author Alex Thornton. (Related news: "Murderous Meerkat Moms Contradict Caring Image, Study Finds.")
But all adults share the task of raising the young.
Adult meerkats known as helpers will feed hungry pups in response to the youngsters' begging cries.
(Watch video: "Meerkats Fight or Flee at Sounds of Recorded Calls.")
"When pups are really little, virtually all feeds will be of dead things," Thornton said.
"But by the time the pups are approaching independence, the majority of food items that helpers bring them are alive."
When helpers brought pups live prey, the researchers observed, the adults would monitor how the young hunters performed.
Adults would often remove a scorpion's stinger before passing it on to the pups. Helpers would also retrieve or disable prey that proved too lively and looked like it was getting away.
Adults were also observed nudging unusual prey with their paws or nose, behavior the researchers suggest is meant to draw a pup's attention toward unfamiliar food.
Even though helpers might not be teaching their own offspring, the adults would still benefit indirectly from their efforts, Thornton says.
Helpers are likely to be closely related to the pups they are teaching, so there's an incentive to boost their chances of survival.
If more pups survive to adulthood, the group will be safer, since meerkats often bunch together to intimidate predators.
"Group size is fantastically important to meerkat societies," Thornton adds. "If you're in a larger group, there's a much lower risk of predation.
"Individuals also seem to put on weight and be healthier in larger groups, so from the helpers' point of view it's important to make sure pups survive into adulthood."
Meanwhile young meerkats are "totally incompetent at finding food," he said, so it makes sense to try to educate them.
"They would never have the opportunity to practice handling difficult things like scorpions and lizards," Thornton added. "The adults provide them with those opportunities in order to promote learning."
This, according to the researchers, helps differentiate meerkats from many other animals that show social learning.
Social learning doesn't involve any input from adults, Thornton says.
"I could see you doing something like digging a hole," he explained. "Then, as a result of having seen you, try it out myself."
"With teaching, the big difference is that one individual takes an active role in promoting learning," he said.
Ants Teach Too
The only other firm evidence for animal teaching comes from an insect, the Cambridge team says.
A study published this January in the journal Nature described a species of ant in which individuals are able to teach one another how to get to a food source. (Read "Ants Have Teacher-Pupil Relations, Researchers Report.")
That study's co-author, Nigel Franks of the University of Bristol in England, says true teaching involves feedback between the teacher and the pupil.
"The teacher provides information or guidance for the pupil at a rate suited to the pupil's abilities," he added.
The ant study suggests that even relatively simple animals can teach, and that it is probably the value of information, not brain size, that decides whether teaching will evolve.
This is the situation with meerkats, Thornton says. For them, opportunities for young to learn on their own are limited and could lead to a fatal mistake.
"Nobody assumes that ants are particularly big-brained or clever," he said. "And meerkats are lovely little things, but nobody assumes they are particularly clever either."
The researchers say teaching might similarly have evolved in a wide range of unrelated animals and has not yet been observed.
Thornton says likely candidates include big cats, which need to learn complex hunting skills.
"I think we are massively underestimating the occurrence of teaching in the wild," he said.
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