Meet the Meerkats of the Kalahari
For 13 years Professor Tim Clutton-Brock and his team of researchers have been studying the complex relationships of meerkat society in the Kuruman River Reserve (KRR) in the Kalahari Desert of South Africa. The study focuses on the evolution of cooperative behavior - the interactions between individuals directed towards a mutually beneficial common goal. In this case, non-related individuals help to raise the young of other meerkats to strengthen the group as a whole and increase individual chance of survival. The scientists also investigate the ecological consequences for other animal societies: using meerkats as a model it may be possible to apply the research to other complex animal societies.
The meerkat (Suricata suricatta), a member of the mongoose family, is relatively widespread throughout southern Africa; it is present in several protected areas and is not currently believed to be suffering from any major threats. However, there is concern that damaging agricultural practices could lead to habitat degradation and population decline if action is not taken to improve environmental awareness now.
The meerkats' famous upright stance allows them to scan the skies for predators such as hawks and eagles These sentries emit a sharp, shrill sound to alert the group that danger is overhead, sending them scurrying to their burrows. Meerkats live underground, in a network of tunnels and chambers that stay cool even during the midday heat of the African sun. As omnivores, meerkats have a varied diet which includes insects, lizards, birds and fruit. They hunt small game in teams, using purring sounds to communicate.
The scientists work closely with fully habituated groups of meerkats, which have been exposed to the scientists so regularly for so long that now they almost completely ignore them and behave totally naturally - even using them as a convenient perch from which to keep a close eye on the skies. At present the team works with approximately 290 individuals, keeping accurate records of the life history of each one.
Earthwatch volunteers help to record births, deaths, pregnancies, the onset and conclusion of lactation and estrus (when ovulation occurs and copulation takes place), changes in dominance status, and even short-term absences from the group. By working with habituated animals, the researchers and volunteers are able to walk with the groups as they forage, and run with them when they fight with neighboring groups, to accurately record all the necessary data. Earthwatch volunteers also document the group contributions made by individual members, such as babysitting, pup feeding, sentinel duty and burrow renovation. They monitor changes in the weight of individuals on a daily basis, and have the unenviable task of collect urine and fecal samples for hormonal and genetic analysis.
Some volunteers may spend several hours each day tracking the groups' movements and monitoring their behavior. Scientific analysis carried out by volunteers includes assessing the effects of variation in helper/pup ratios on the growth and survival of pups, and measuring the effects that different levels of contribution have on the weight and survival of male and female helpers. All members in the study groups are individually recognizable. Group members have been trained (using boiled egg pieces) to climb onto top-pan balances (using boiled egg crumbs) and to be weighed three times a day (after dawn, midday and before sleeping) to monitor changes.
The most common explanations for the evolution of cooperative breeding - where individuals help care for young that are not their own, at the expense of their own reproduction - rely on the theory that family groups help raise other family members' young because this allows the families' genetic code to live on. This theory clearly plays an important role in the evolution of many cooperative breeding societies, such as insect colonies. However, the evidence that it provides a satisfactory general explanation of the evolution of specialized cooperative societies is less compelling than it was a few decades ago.
A success story
Over the last decade the project has developed into an incredible success. In 2000 the project team purchased the Kuruman River Reserve, and have since removed domesticated livestock from three quarters of the area, replacing them with viable populations of indigenous ungulates such as springbok, gemsbok, hartebeest, wildebeest and eland. This is a fantastic achievement as it will halt any further habitat degradation through overgrazing by domestic cattle. Much of the mesquite (a local crop) has also been removed, allowing native vegetation to return. Comprehensive monitoring of changes in bird and mammal populations is carried out in the surrounding area to provide a complete picture of the process of environmental recovery following agricultural degradation.
During the last decade facilities have gradually improved at the site and provide access, accommodation and meals for visiting researchers and film-makers. The Kuruman River Reserve is home to the meerkats of Meerkat Manor, and the series was filmed on site using one of Professor Clutton-Brock's habituated family groups. Part of the income from this popular series has been used to improve the living conditions of human families living on the reserve, including providing electricity and running water to every house, and education to their children. Project staff regularly give presentations to the local school and have established and maintained an "environmental issues decision group" in the local farming community. The link between the scientists and this group really contributes to local land management. The project is also in contact with members of the family who own the much larger neighboring reserve, with a view to developing an environmental monitoring centre for the southern Kalahari. This is a brilliant opportunity to spread the good work so far carried out at Kuruman River Reserve and further illustrates the outward looking nature of all those involved in this project.
Report by Helen Walters.
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