Meerkat society: Underdogs are best at problem-solving

See a subordinate male meerkat complete the "jar-opening task" to retrieve a tasty scorpion

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Meerkats will stick paws and noses into many a crevice in search of their favourite food - scorpions.

And research has now shown that the more subordinate members of meerkat troops are the most "innovative" when it comes to foraging.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge found that low-ranking males were best at solving problems that earned them a food reward.

They published their findings in the journal Animal Behaviour.

Meerkat emerging from sleeping burrow (Image: Alex Thornton)
  • Meerkats are highly social mongooses. They take turns foraging for food and standing guard to look out for predators.
  • When "guard meerkats" spot a predator, they warn the rest of the group with repeated staccato alarm cries. Scientists who have studied these calls say the animals produce slightly different sounds depending on the urgency of the threat
  • The same researchers who set these tasks for the meerkats have previously found that the animals have "traditions" - set ways of behaving within their group. While members of one meerkat troop will consistently get up very early, those of another will always emerge from their burrows much later in the morning

Dr Alex Thornton, an animal behaviour specialist from the University of Cambridge, led the study.

He and his team set "tasks" for a group of wild meerkats in the southern Kalahari Desert. The researchers left out closed transparent containers with opaque lids that the animals had to work out how to open in order to reach a scorpion inside.

The researchers explained in their paper that they wanted to know "what drives individuals to innovate, and what psychological mechanisms allow them to do so".

Dr Thornton said that with meerkats, "it seems it's more about persistence than intelligence".

"They don't seem to work out the rule - to attack the opaque part of the different apparatus," he explained.

"When you give them a new task, they go back to square one.

"They tend to just keep scratching away fruitlessly at the transparent sides [of the container] rather than going straight for the opaque part that will give them the reward."

Meerkat group near burrow (Image: Alex Thornton) Meerkats live in groups of up to 30 animals with one dominant and several subordinate males

Despite this apparent lack of ingenuity, the low-ranked males outperformed all other members of the group. They simply would not give up until they had worked out how reach the scorpion.

Dr Thornton explained that these subordinate adult males were the ones that left their group to find mates, "so it's beneficial for them to be willing to take risks and try to solve new problems when they encounter them", he said.

The researcher added that, although many researchers have suggested that innovation may be "cognitively demanding", these results indicated that "simple, conserved learning processes and dogged perseverance may suffice to generate solutions to novel problems".

"I think the phrase that best describes this is 'necessity is the mother of invention,'" said Dr Thornton. "If you're dominant, you can bully and steal stuff from others.

"If you're subordinate, it may pay for you to take risks and figure things out for yourself."

Meerkat (Image: Alex Thornton) Meerkats seem to rely on "dogged perseverance" to work out the solutions to problems

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