It’s the September 1st. Here in Boston, the temperature is starting to (somewhat) cool down, and the nights are getting longer. And, of course, the hallmark of fall: school is starting again, and the streets are full of new, excited students.
Which means it’s only fitting to talk about an animal whose young also goes to ‘school’: the meerkat.
Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are one of the smallest members of the mongoose family and are native to southern Africa. These creatures are tiny and slender with long tails. Their bodies are 10 to 14 inches (25 to 35 cm) long, with an additional 7 to 10 inches (18 to 25 cm) added to their overall length via their tail.
Meerkats can live in a variety of habitats as long as the soil is right. They nest in large, complex burrow systems dug in the ground. These burrows can include tunnels that are 1.5 meters long and chambers that can reach 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter. Each burrow system will contain multiple sleeping chambers and even a toilet room! Within their territory, a meerkat group will have multiple burrows that they rotate between.
Meerkats can dig these impressive burrows because of multiple body adaptations. For example, their forefeet have long, tough nails that do a great job of digging in the dirt. Meerkats also have a transparent membrane to cover their eyes to protect them while digging and ears that can close to keep soil out. And if they don’t feel like making their own home, meerkats will sometimes take over the burrows of other animals!
Why live underground? Besides protecting them from predators, meerkat burrows help keep their inhabitants cool. Burrows stay an average of 13 degrees Celsius, much cooler than the average annual temperature of 43 degrees Celsius found in parts of their range!
Meerkats have a very recognizable posture: the upright ‘sentinel’ posture. By sitting up tall in this sentinel posture on top of a nearby rock or termite mound, meerkats can keep an eye out for predators. Typically, only one meerkat will watch for predators while the others forage. Everyone in the group will take turns as the sentinel while the others eat their fill. The foraging individuals know that there’s a sentinel keeping an eye on things, so they, in return, spend more time digging for prey.
When everything is alright, the sentinel makes a constant, low peeping sound known as the ‘watchman’s song.’ As long as foragers hear this peeping, they know they can keep foraging. But when the alarm is raised, the meerkats typically run for the nearest bolthole. The guard will make different alarm calls based on the type of predator that’s approaching, like a land predator or an aerial one.
Alpha female runs the world
Meerkat groups, called mobs or gangs, are run by a single dominant couple. The alpha female is typically the only female in the mob to reproduce. Alphas will protect their breeding rights by temporarily evicting subordinate females from the group when it’s almost time for them to give birth. The stress of being cast out from the group can wreak havoc on the subordinate’s ability to reproduce in the first place. The alpha female will also kill any pups that aren’t hers within a day of them being born.
Why do subordinates put up with this treatment? Put simply, they need to in order to survive. Meerkats survive long-term by living in these large groups; with others looking out for predators, for instance, you can forage effectively. Even if a meerkat could survive independently, she would likely be unable to successfully rear any offspring. So, subordinate females deal with the alpha’s treatment in the hope that they might be able to take her place and reproduce when the alpha dies.
So what do the subordinate females do when they’re allowed back into the mob? They spend much of their time caring for the dominant female’s offspring. For example, while the alpha female is off foraging for food to maintain her milk supply, the subordinates protect the young, guarding the burrow from enemies that might try to kill them.
Once pups are around three weeks old, they will start eating solid food. The subordinates will bring insects back to the den for the young to feast upon for the next week or two. Once allowed out of the den, the subordinates will continue bringing the young food until they can forage themselves. They’ll also carry any youngsters that fall behind as the pack moves.
School of a sort
In addition to various insects and small critters, meerkats hunt and eat scorpions. It helps that meerkats have some immunity to scorpion venom, but a scorpion’s claws can still do some damage! So, how do meerkats learn to hunt these creatures? By getting home-schooled.
The first lesson is to learn what a scorpion looks like. When the pups are young, the adult helpers bring back a dead scorpion for them to eat.
As the pups grow older, they graduate to getting a live scorpion brought back. But to keep the pups safe, the helpers remove the stinger before presenting the scorpion. This gives pups the chance to practice hunting scorpions without getting stung. And if the scorpion manages to escape, the helper will bring it back to let the pups try again.
Once the pups have the skills for the altered scorpion, the helpers will bring back an unaltered one. The pups are ready to start hunting scorpions in the real world!
So, how do the helpers know what stage their pupils are at? While it’s tempting to think they are somehow measuring a pup’s skills, the answer is much more straightforward. Helpers are listening to the sounds pups make. As the pups age, their noises change, and helpers adjust prey accordingly. If the pups sound younger, they get dead scorpions; as they grow older, they bring live ones.
Sounds like a more straightforward solution than grading stacks of standardized tests!