JOHANNESBURG – One of the most captivating sights of African wildlife is dark-eyed meerkats standing side by side on their hind legs, as though posing for a group photograph. They look cuddly and endearing. But a new study says they have a dark side.
The dominant female meerkat in a group banishes the other females when they give birth, killing and even eating their offspring to ensure a plentiful food supply for the alpha couple’s own pups and a labor pool of meerkat babysitters who don’t have their own young to rear.
In the mass media, meerkats have a gentler image, inspiring advertisers, a character in the animated movie “The Lion King” and a TV documentary series that told the story of a meerkat family in southern Africa. That television show, “Meerkat Manor,” explored the meerkats’ often harsh existence but also gave names to the animal “stars,” helping to get viewers emotionally involved. “Flower” was one of those meerkats.
In light of the new study, “Cannibal” could be an apt name for a dominant female meerkat.
The recent study, by a group of British and South African universities plus the Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa, builds on observations that dominant meerkats use violence to regulate breeding in their own group and to survive in tough desert environments.
“Since meerkats are cute and fluffy, and have been saccharine, anthropomorphized poster children for happy family life, it comes across as more shocking,” the study’s leader, Dr. Matthew Bell of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences wrote in an email. Contrary to the public perception, he wrote, meerkat lives are “nasty, brutish and short!”
The study, published in July in the online journal Nature Communications, analyzed the effect of giving contraceptive shots to adult female helpers in 12 groups of meerkats in the Kalahari Desert to ensure they could not reproduce for six months. During that period, dominant females were less aggressive toward the subordinates, foraged more, gained more weight and had bigger pups.
The female helpers, in turn, provided more care and food for the dominant female’s offspring, according to the research.
“We’ve done the first clear experiment that measures the value that dominants gain from suppressing their subordinates,” Bell wrote. “Such benefits have always been assumed but never clearly confirmed.”
Conflict occurs in many species, but meerkat societies in particular provide researchers with good opportunities to measure the costs of that conflict, said Dr. Andrew Young, an evolutionary biologist at Britain’s University of Exeter who was not involved in Bell’s study. “That’s sort of the niche in which meerkats fit as a nice model because there’s very strong hierarchy but subordinates do still try to breed,” Young said. By comparison, he said, only dominant female mole rats breed and the subordinate mole rats don’t even try.
Meerkats are also competitive in captivity, said Agnes Maluleke of the Johannesburg zoo, which has nearly 20 meerkats. The zoo has had to split a group when a young meerkat challenged a dominant but weakening one in a vicious scrap that Maluleke described as, “I’m fighting for life or death because I want to take over.”
Meerkats, which belong to the mongoose family and can have several litters a year, generally live fewer than 10 years in the wild but survive longer in the more secure environment of a zoo.
FreeMe, a South African rehabilitation center for indigenous creatures, annually receives dozens of meerkats, many of which were part of the illegal pet trade and had started biting their owners. Nicci Wright, a senior animal manager at the shelter, said some meerkats had been named Timon, the meerkat in Disney’s “The Lion King.”
“People think they’re very sweet and very cute,” Wright said. “They haven’t spoken to anybody who knows them properly.”