New study explores sinister side of meerkats

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New study explores sinister side of meerkats
Meerkat Manor stands next to a tree trunk in an enclosure at the Pretoria Zoo, South Africa, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. One of the most captivating sights of African wildlife is that of sharp-eyed meerkats standing side-by-side on their hindlegs, as though posing for a group photograph. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe )
Meerkat Manor leans against a tree trunk in an enclosure at the Pretoria Zoo, South Africa, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. One of the most captivating sights of African wildlife is that of sharp-eyed meerkats standing side-by-side on their hindlegs, as though posing for a group photograph. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe )
A meerkat stands and watches visitors in an enclosure at the 'ZOOM' Zoo in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany, on August 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Meerkat mother Hilde and her offspring are pictured at the zoo in Dresden, eastern Germany, on May 7, 2014. AFP PHOTO / DPA / MATTHIAS HIEKEL / GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read MATTHIAS HIEKEL/AFP/Getty Images)
A meerkat poses with Easter eggs in her enclosure at the zoo in Hanover, central Germany on April 3, 2014. Zookeepers surprised the animals with an Easter egg hunt as the Easter vacation started in this German region of Lower Saxony. AFP PHOTO / DPA/ HOLGER HOLLEMANN GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read HOLGER HOLLEMANN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - MARCH 03: Meerkat or Suricate (Suricata suricatta), Herpestidae. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
A meerkat is pictured on January 8, 2014 in their enclosurein Leipzig's zoo. AFP PHOTO /DPA/ HENDRIK SCHMIDT /GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read HENDRIK SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JULY 23: One of the three recently arrived baby meerkats, looks out from below its mother, in their enclosure at Bristol Zoo Garden on July 23, 2013 in Bristol, England. The triplets, who were born on June 21 to mum Babushka, are currently too young to be sexed so are yet to be named and bring the number of meerkats homed at the Zoo up to eighteen. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JULY 23: A adult meercat looks out as three recently arrived baby meerkats play in their enclosure at Bristol Zoo Garden on July 23, 2013 in Bristol, England. The triplets, who were born on June 21 to mum Babushka, are currently too young to be sexed so are yet to be named and bring the number of meerkats homed at the Zoo up to eighteen. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
A meerkat stands on a stone on June 13, 2013 at the Sababurg animal park near Hofgeismar, western Germany. AFP PHOTO / UWE ZUCCHI / GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read UWE ZUCCHI/AFP/Getty Images)
A young meerkat is fed by a zoo keeper in the zoo in Aachen, western Germany, on June 4, 2013. The young meerkats are raised by the zoo keeper as their mother rejected them after giving birth. AFP PHOTO / OLIVER BERG GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read OLIVER BERG/AFP/Getty Images)
A meerkat checks visitors at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Garden in Los Angeles on March 26, 2013.AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR (Photo credit should read JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) in Namibia (Photo by: Hoberman/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Meerkats enyoy the sun at the zoo on March 2, 2013 in Erfurt, Germany. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN SCHUTT /GERMANY OUT (Photo credit should read MARTIN SCHUTT/AFP/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: A meerkat watches as Sarah Hall (not pictured) counts them as part of the annual stock take at Bristol Zoo on January 2, 2013 in Bristol, England. The annual animal 'census' is carried out at the start of each year and includes stocktaking more than 400 species; from tiny insects, fish and birds, to seals, gorillas and monkeys. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Meerkats visit their new home during the official opening of a new meerkats compound in the Dresden Zoo, eastern Germany, Monday, April 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Jens Meyer)
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By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA

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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