Thursday, 21 February 2013

Meerkats Use Subordinate Animals as Guinea Pigs When Approaching Novel Threats

Feb. 18, 2013 — In their environment, wild animals are exposed to countless threats, be they predators, diseases or natural obstacles to get over, such as gorges or rivers. In the course of evolution, they have developed specific behavioural responses to allow them to deal with these risks. In recent times, numerous human-made threats have been added to the naturally-existing ones, such as dangerous roads to cross. On the evolutionary time scale, it is excluded that the animals have evolved a whole new repertoire of adaptive responses to these risks.
Photo: Wikipedia

Simon Townsend is a behavioural biologist at the University of Zurich, and Nicolas Perony is a systems scientist at ETH Zurich. They teamed up to understand how animals cope with novel human-made threats by studying groups of wild meerkats, a species of socially-living mongooses.

The leader gives way when crossing the road
To this end, Townsend observed several meerkat groups in the Kalahari Desert. Through the reserve runs a rather heavily-frequented road, which effectively cut the animals' home range in half. On their way from one burrow to another, the meerkats are often forced to cross the road. Based on field observations, the researchers discovered that in most cases it was the highest-ranked animal -- the dominant female -- who led her group to the road. However, upon reaching the road she yielded to a lower-ranked individual, who took up the role of "guinea pig" to cross the road first.

(Credit: © Simon Townsend / Kalahari Meerkat Project)

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