Murderous Meerkat Moms Contradict Caring Image, Study Finds

Scott Norris
for National Geographic News
March 15, 2006

Meerkats seem to enjoy a peaceful way of life: everyone living in extended family groups, all pitching in to help raise the pups.

But new research into meerkat behavior reveals that this seemingly cooperative social order is riddled with violence.

Specifically, female meerkats have the blood of each other's offspring on their claws, according to biologists studying the creatures in the wild.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in Great Britain found that, in the animals' strict hierarchical society, pregnant dominant females will often kill any litters born to subordinates.

What's more, the researchers also observed subordinates killing other females' pups to secure better resources for their own young.

Biologist and study co-author Andrew Young says it's all a matter of animals trying to make the most of their lot in life.

"Despite dominants largely monopolizing reproduction, subordinates do attempt to interfere with the breeding attempts of others, in order to maximize their own meager share," Young said.

The surprising findings by Young and co-author Tim Clutton-Brock appeared online today in the journal Biology Letters.

Pup Killers

Animals killing their own species' young is not particularly rare across the animal kingdom.

But the murderous tactic is rarely employed by low-ranking females in societies with a strongly dominant individual.

In this regard, the meerkat social order more closely resembles that of social insects than of other mammals.

Continued on Next Page >>




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