Meerkats Teach Pups How to Eat Risky Food, Study Says

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 passively—babies 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 items—a 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.")

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