There are many fascinating features of meerkats, squirrel-sized mongooses found in southern Africa.
They use a scent pouch below their tail to mark their territory, rubbing their smell on rocks and plants.
They are able to eat venomous snakes and scorpions because they are immune to the poisons.
The four-legged animals frequently stand up on their rear legs, which gives them a human-like quality.
But Christine Drea, an animal-behavior researcher and a professor of evolutionary anthropology, is more impressed by another characteristic of meerkats: the way the foot-long animals work together, especially when it comes to breeding.
“I think their cooperative behavior is pretty interesting,” says Drea, who is conducting a five-year study of meerkats. “I’ve never worked with a cooperative breeder before. Why would certain animals defer or completely abandon breeding in order to help another animal breed?”
Drea, who has also studied the social behavior of hyenas and lemurs, is intrigued by the meerkats’ matriarchal family society, which means females are the dominant sex.
“What I think is interesting about the meerkats in particular is that you essentially have a mammalian system that is very much like those used by social insects,” she says. “In other words, you have a 'queen' who does the vast majority of the reproduction, and then all of her other 'subjects' help her raise her pups.”
Meerkats’ attitude toward breeding is part of a larger pattern of cooperative behavior.
“The thing is that life is pretty harsh for these guys out there in the Kalahari Desert,” Drea says. “In order for them to make it, they really need the help of others. The only way to get the help of others is if those others are not themselves reproducing, because then they would be interested in raising their own litter of pups. So the system works because certain animals forgo reproducing.”
“There’s cooperation in lots of different aspects of their everyday life,” Drea says. “It’s not just in reproducing. It’s in making sure you can get your meal safely, making sure you have appropriate numbers to defend your turf, your food, your burrow, your young. Then it is cooperating to raise them and make sure that they get weaned and fed and get body fat and all of these other things.”
Drea describes how meerkats use teams to work on their burrows, underground tunnels that allow the animals to avoid the hot African sun or to stay warm when it’s cold outside. “They rebuild their tunnels,” she says. “They get these sort of convoys of meerkats that dig so that they are sort of excavating these tunnels in a long chain gang.”
Meerkats also have an excellent sense of smell that allows them to detect prey, such as insects and rodents, underground. But while foraging for these subterranean animals, the meerkats are exposed to animals preying on them—including snakes and raptors, such as eagles and falcons.
Once again, it’s their cooperative behavior that allows the meerkats to collect food. “The other thing where cooperation is key for these little guys is in detecting predators,” Drea says. “When they are off and about during foraging, every now and again someone has to stop foraging and has to sort of sit on raised ground and look up and make sure there aren’t any predators around. If there are predators or perceived predators, it lets out an alarm call and everybody runs for shelter.”
Guards also look out for other large groups of meerkats, which are known as gangs or mobs. “They are pretty fierce,” Drea says of the animals. “Two groups that come together could wreak havoc, particularly in killing a litter. There’s a lot of infanticide among meerkats.”
Drea believes learning more about meerkats could help us better understand another species: ourselves.
“I think that we can learn about factors influencing the evolution of cooperation, because there is something very unusual about humans, and that is we will risk our lives to help others—on occasion, not always,” Drea says. “We are highly cooperative. There is very little we do that doesn’t involve multiple people working together toward a shared goal. Humans are at the extreme end of cooperative behavior, and there are a lot of unknowns about how cooperative behavior evolved. One thing that we can learn through studying species like meerkats that are cooperative is something more general about the processes that select for and support cooperative behavior.”