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New study explores sinister side of meerkats


JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- One of the most captivating sights of African wildlife is that of 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, as well as 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 to The Associated Press. Contrary to the public perception, he wrote, meerkat lives are "nasty, brutish and short!"

The study, published in July in Nature Communications, an online journal, analyzed the effect of giving contraceptive jabs 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. In contrast, he said, only dominant female mole rats breed and the subordinate mole rats don't even try to reproduce.

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, who are a member of 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, Maluleke said.

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."

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Richard August 16 2014 at 11:23 AM

Seems everything that comes out of Africa has a dark side. Look at Detroit, Missouri, etc. Scary.

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12 replies
bienhoa72alum August 16 2014 at 11:23 AM

"Meerkat Manor" actually did explain this darker side of meerkat society.

Flag Reply +16 rate up
2 replies
exitscreaming bienhoa72alum August 16 2014 at 4:41 PM

yes, this is nothing new

Flag Reply +3 rate up
Kate bienhoa72alum August 16 2014 at 11:26 PM

Yes, it did. I have known all of this for years.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
pullman1881 August 16 2014 at 4:05 PM

My God! Wild animals acting like wild animals. I can't believe it!

Flag Reply +14 rate up
1 reply
adika3z pullman1881 August 16 2014 at 10:39 PM

meerkat can be pat pet if tameable

Flag Reply 0 rate up
tesla5000 August 16 2014 at 10:51 AM

Can't help but notice the striking
similarity to the story in Missouri.

Flag Reply +12 rate up
9 replies
silkroadg August 16 2014 at 10:45 AM

OMG.........now contraceptives for MEERKATS!!! Actually, they seem a lot like the LOOTERS in FERGUSON!!

Flag Reply +9 rate up
1 reply
Sonny silkroadg August 16 2014 at 11:18 AM

Big difference....... the Meerkats aren't on welfare!

Flag Reply +3 rate up
1 reply
bleuthing Sonny August 16 2014 at 5:29 PM


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jaded13640 August 16 2014 at 10:57 AM

It would appear that the writer of this article never actually wanted the show because if he or she had, they'd know that the "infantaside" thing is common knowledge.

Flag Reply +9 rate up
5 replies
Art August 16 2014 at 11:01 AM

we better send them to therapy and pay for it.. we probably paid for somone to study this.

Flag Reply +7 rate up
1 reply
savannahswithgod Art August 16 2014 at 2:13 PM

Your talking therapy treatment as Obama treatment aren't you for there is no cures!

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
inoculismeis savannahswithgod August 16 2014 at 4:49 PM


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rivera8787 August 16 2014 at 12:02 PM

Doesn't this picture of meerkats look like the last democratic convention.....HAHA

Flag Reply +5 rate up
6 replies
f4180 August 16 2014 at 12:28 PM

"dark side " ? How little we understand nature . How little we know .

Flag Reply +5 rate up
1 reply
Kate f4180 August 16 2014 at 11:39 PM

There isn't a single person on here (except possibly yourself, not that I am being mean about that), who was not aware of the Meerkat tendency to kill off members of its own group. They are not the only animal that does that-- far from it.

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1 reply
dgcajun101 Kate August 17 2014 at 12:24 PM

kate, that is basically what f4 said!! wolves, bears, squirrels will do the same. have killed young male squirrels who were castrated as babies so they would not be able to reproduce or challenge an older squirrel. the older gets into the nest and does the job but luckily they don't kill as often.

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tazgadon August 16 2014 at 12:54 PM

What are the chances that the increased violence in the world, is an indication that mankind is evolving into Meerkats?

Flag Reply +4 rate up
2 replies
kmcc895370 tazgadon August 16 2014 at 1:15 PM

Maybe mankind has evolved from Meerkats but retained the racial memory ability to kill their own or other peoples children. Then when a certain DNA sequence is right - bam! - child abusers and child murderers - are the result.

PS i'm not serious about this but was indulging in some 'what if .. .'

Flag Reply +1 rate up
savannahswithgod tazgadon August 16 2014 at 2:09 PM

What did I miss the start of WW3? Better go check the mail box to get the Draft Notice!

Flag Reply 0 rate up
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