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Brutal, brutal meerkat mothers...

Updated: Aug 22, 2020

But when it comes to the survival of their pups, all is fair in the animal world...

The first post on this blog is about an animal which is extremely special to me. I spent a year collecting data at the Kalahari Meerkat project (KMP) in South Africa in 2011-2012. I will forever be grateful to the project, to meerkats and the people at the project for making the year one of the best in my life so far! So here is something about the meerkats (there is so much to write about meerkats.. but for now I will focus on the female meerkats, who can make anyone go :-o)

Meerkats are mongooses found in arid, open habitats in parts of Africa. They stay in groups which consists of related females and males (with exceptions). Interestingly, each group is ‘controlled’ by one female – also called the DOMINANT FEMALE of the group. Most pups in the group (almost 80% of them) are the dominant female’s pups and the whole group together takes care of them. But unlike some insects (e.g. honeybees, ants) in which other females are biologically not capable of breeding, other females in a meerkat group can be ‘mothers’. They even get pregnant often!

A meerkat group enjoying the morning sun at KMP

A heavily pregnant dominant female

How is it then, that the dominant female still gives birth to most surviving pups? First, the dominant females are known to KILL PUPS born to other females (infanticide). Second, in the later part of her pregnancy, the dominant female “EVICTS” (throws out) older females from the group, usually those who are pregnant. The poor evicted females very often linger around the main group, and try to get back because they have to SURVIVE! The females when evicted are under so much stress that if they are pregnant, they chemically abort the pups, or give birth to pups which very often do not survive.

But the story does not end here! The dominant female accepts these females back after giving birth to her own pups. This is because if the evicted female was pregnant, she is possibly lactating (producing milk for young). And the dominant female needs help with feeding her pups and taking care of them! There have been observations of females who were not pregnant producing milk for the dominant’s pups too!

Pups suckling. The female here is not even the mother of these pups!

Picture by Lyndsey Marris

But why does the dominant female not want to tolerate females or their pups in the group? Because first, the pups are competition to the dominant female’s pups. Research has shown that if there are more number of pups in the group, the daily weight gain of the pups reduces substantially. Second, like the dominant female can kill pups of other females, there is a chance that these females (especially if pregnant themselves) will kill the dominant’s pups if ‘allowed’ to stay in the group! Brutal, brutal mothers! But when it comes to the survival of their pups (passing on genes to the next generation), all is fair in the animal world!

Every bit of information available to us today is a result of more than 25 years spent by researchers asking questions, designing studies, collecting data in harsh conditions and analysing it accurately! A shout out to all researchers who have worked at KMP for broadening our understanding about animal societies!

The field base of Kalahari meerkat project. This photo was taken in 2012. The project has expanded quite a bit since then. But there is absolutely NOTHING around. The nearest 'city' was 4 hours away! Photo by Jess Mitchell

Thats me on field- busy collecting data using the hand held computer called 'psion' and an antenna attached to the bag for tracking meerkats

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