March of the Meerkats

They are following the all-conquering penguins on to the big screen. But anyone expecting a cute, feel-good drama should look away now, says renowned expert Tim Clutton-Brock

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Just what is it about some animals that attract such intense interest from humans? In March of the Penguins, cinema audiences throughout the world were on the edge of their seats as first the males and then the females trudged for miles over the ice shelf to take over parental duties under appalling conditions. Following its success, other film-makers have cast around for the next animal experience and have come up with meerkats - the bright-eyed, slender-tailed, upright-standing, social mongooses of the Kalahari. Oxford Scientific Films is currently shooting a feature film for Discovery Channel at one site in the southern Kalahari while, 50 miles away in another reserve, a BBC team is habituating animals in a bid to produce a rival movie. Clearly, meerkats are all the rage - or, if they aren't, they soon will be if the film-makers have anything to do with it.

From past experience, both teams are on to a winner: in terms of public interest, meerkats have form. From the first iconic film (David Attenborough's Meerkats United) in the 1980s, through the popularity of the unnaturally solitary Timon in The Lion King, to Meerkat Manor, the current docusoap that follows the lives and loves of individuals in one meerkat group over several seasons (and which now airs in 67 countries and has an audience in the US alone of 22 million), it is clear that meerkats exercise a strong fascination over a viewing public that extends beyond wildlife.

I have been leading a research team working on the ecology and behaviour of meerkats for the past 13 years, and Meerkat Manor is filmed at our research site on one of our study groups, but I'm still surprised by the intensity of public interest in meerkat society. Just what is it that makes meerkats so special?

There are probably several reasons for their popularity, some of them trivial, others more profound. There's no doubt that meerkats are cute. There is widespread belief that humans find animals whose eyes are on the front of their heads (rather than at the side) more appealing, and meerkats obviously qualify. They commonly stand on their hind legs, using their tails to support them like shooting sticks, so, at times, can look like a row of garden gnomes. And they are very active - unlike many other carnivores, meerkats are always on the go, digging for the grubs, beetles, scorpions and geckos that make up their diet, sometimes disappearing entirely below the sand in tunnels they have excavated in minutes, forming chain gangs to dispose of loose sand; climbing high over shrubs and dead trees to scan the horizon for predators and tumbling down to earth when they descend; joining in complex co-ordinated war dances to scare away intruders from neighbouring groups. But many other animals have appealing faces and an absorbing daily routine, so there has to be something else.

The unusual level of co-operation between group members - which is more highly developed in meerkats than in almost any other mammal - is probably an important reason for their popularity. The sight of mature males babysitting pups for a day at a time, of digging chain gangs pawing loose sand up from deep underground, of sentries carefully replacing each other, calling to other group members to let them know that a guard is on duty and of groups co-operatively defending their young against predators has an immediate appeal because of its apparent similarity to human societies. This level of teamwork raises fundamental questions about the evolutionary causes and ecological consequences of social behaviour that fuel our research and apply to a greater or lesser extent to most social animals. Why do subordinates help and how do they divide up the workload among themselves? Do individuals try to cheat by minimising their contributions to group activities, and if not, why not? What biological processes control co-operative behaviour?

Competition between females is the flipside to the co-operation coin. Since dominant females cannot rear pups successfully without a supporting cast of helpers, they need to ensure that there aren't too many competing pups produced in the group - which is why they suppress breeding attempts by subordinate females. This raises other questions. Just how do dominant females suppress the fertility of other females? Can they control the growth of subordinate females and so minimise the risks of being challenged? What happens to breeders when their partners die?

Meerkats also have an important practical advantage for film-makers. Like many other carnivores, they can become completely habituated to the presence of observers. When most of the meerkats in our population blearily emerged as pups from their natal burrows, the first other animal they will have seen would have been a member of my research team. They consequently become completely used to us and now ignore our presence - though they sometimes use us as a convenient site to scan for predators. We have taken advantage of this by training them (with crumbs of hard-boiled egg) to climb onto electronic scales at dawn, midday and dusk so that we can measure their food intake and monitor their growth. As a result, camera teams can film them from a few metres away while they go about their business undisturbed and, at this range, it's not difficult to recognise individuals and appreciate differences in behaviour and personality.

In Meerkat Manor, the series follows the lives and loves one group, the Whiskers. There's Flower, the dominant matriarch who carefully nurtures and protects her dependent offspring - but usually kills any grandchildren produced by her resident daughters and evicts older females from the group, sending them on a perilous quest to find living space elsewhere. There's Zaphod, her mate, who defends Flower when she is on heat and plays an important role in clashes with other groups but otherwise remains aloof, contributing little to the daily routine. There's a large cast of subordinate females and males (including the heroic Shakespeare and an inept older male Yossarian) who help to rear the three litters of pups that Flower produces each year, guarding them for up to 12 hours at a time, giving them nearly half the food they catch, contributing to sentry duty and, when necessary, defending each other at risk of their lives. And there are the neighbours from hell, a rival group who regularly raid deep into Whiskers' territory and attempt to kill any pups (and babysitters) that they find.

Since Meerkat Manor is shot so close to the animals, it is easy to recognise individual differences and changes in behaviour - the submissiveness of her older daughters when Flower is pregnant; the obvious determination of Shakespeare in co-operative defence; the zany anxiety of Yossarian and the possessiveness of Zaphod when Flower is on heat. All social animals probably show similar differences in personality - as any dog owner will testify - but the role that these differences play in co-operation and social conflict within meerkat groups makes for compulsive viewing. In addition, our life-histories of each animal allows Meerkat Manor to tell genuine stories about the lives of individuals in a way that has obvious parallels with human soap operas - an animal docusoap. Flower, Zaphod, Shakespeare and the rest are real characters whose life-histories are included in our datasets, not fictitious inventions. And when the films describe each creature as a parent, brother, aunt or uncle, this is not based on guesswork, but on known kinship tested by DNA fingerprinting.

But don't be misled by the superficial similarities between the social dynamics of meerkats and human soap operas. There are fundamental contrasts between meerkat groups and human societies - not least the fact that one female monopolises breeding in each group. For scientists, Meerkat Manor and its precursors - the films of Jane Goodall's chimpanzees, Diane Fossey's gorillas and Cynthia Moss's elephants - have the advantage that they engage public interest in research and popularise its principal findings but there's a real danger of anthropomorphism - of interpreting animal actions in terms of human emotions and processes. We may believe we can identify fear, aggression, anxiety and attraction from the animal's behaviour but the psychological processes involved may be very different from those in humans.

It is important to remember that human values are irrelevant to animal societies. Flower is not showing pathological behaviour when she kills her daughters' offspring but an adapted strategy that maximises her own breeding success. Vice versa, the social relations of animals provide no rational justification or model for human behaviour and there are real risks in deriving moral lessons for humans from animal societies - even those as co-operative as meerkats. Attempts to justify or condemn human behaviour by reference to animal societies are not as rare as you might think. For example, the apparent rarity of homosexual individuals in many populations of wild animals has commonly (but quite illogically) been cited as evidence of the unnaturalness of homosexuality in humans. The amazing fidelity of male and female penguins so brilliantly documented in March of the Penguins was touted as an object lesson for human couples. And, in their press release about the forthcoming film, the BBC promises that their meerkat film will provide "an inspiring look at how one family's connection to each other and their surroundings stands as a model of resilience and fortitude to us all".

While meerkats are cute, funny, monogamous, affectionate, fearless and frequently unselfish, they are also vicious, ruthless, uncaring, murderous, infanticidal and vindictive, especially to weaker individuals - and both sides of their characters are necessary for their survival and reproductive success. Their co-operation and altruism may match human aspirations - but killing and eating the grandchildren? Perhaps not. For moral uplift, look elsewhere.

Tim Clutton-Brock is Professor of Animal Ecology at Cambridge University. He runs the Kalahari Meerkat Project in the Kuruman River Reserve, South Africa. Series one and two of 'Meerkat Manor' are now available on DVD, www.amazon.co.uk

Meer facts: The lowdown on your new favourite animal

'Meerkat' is the generic Afrikaans name for mongoose - one suggestion is that it is derived from the Afrikaans phrase "meer kat as hund" (more cat than dog), a description of mongooses by the early Dutch settlers. However, it has come to be associated with one species, the desert-adapted, slender-tailed meerkat or suricate (Suricata suricatta) that is confined to the Kalahari and adjoining regions of southern Africa.

Like other mongooses, slender-tailed meerkats are carnivores, living on invertebrates and small vertebrates that they dig up from the sandy soil. Most of the African mongooses are nocturnal and feed alone - but meerkats and a small number of other species are diurnal and social, forming tightly knit groups of 5-50 with an equal number of males and females which occupy large territories of 3-5sq km.

Each meerkat group includes one dominant female and produces 2-4 litters of 4-6 pups per year. There's a dominant male who (according to genetic analyses) fathers most of the offspring born to the dominant female.

Dominant males and females can maintain their positions for several years though they are often killed by predators (typically marshall eagles, jackals, wild cats and larger snakes) before they are displaced. In addition, there are up to 30 or more subordinate males and females , who rear the pups produced by the dominant female.

Subordinate females (sometimes including individuals that have never bred) will even produce milk and suckle the dominant female's pups. Many of the older subordinates are capable of breeding and often try to do so. Subordinate females typically refuse mating attempts by the resident dominant male (who is commonly their father) or by males reared in the group (who are often their brothers) but will mate readily with roving males from other groups.

Dominant females do their best to prevent subordinate females breeding, and when older daughters do become pregnant and give birth, their mother commonly kills their pups, especially if she is pregnant. Pregnant daughters also readily kill their mother's pups if they get the chance. To reduce this risk, dominant females often drive their older daughters out of the group before giving birth, generating wandering splinter groups of females.

After giving birth, dominant females may allow their wandering daughters back into the group, though they are intolerant of past rivals.

Like females, males start their lives contributing to rearing pups born to the dominant female, usually contributing nearly as much as their sisters to all forms of parental care apart from lactation. As they get older, they spend more and more time cruising, searching for willing subordinate females in other groups.

The next 'new penguins': Where the film scouts could turn to after the meerkats

What other animal soap operas can we expect in the near future? Likely candidates need to live in groups, show complex forms of cooperation and competition between group members and be easily accessible for filming.

Naked mole-rats, above, would be a possibility - though they are not as appealing as meerkats. Like meerkats, they live in large, stable groups and a single female monopolises reproduction. Here, too, dominant females outrank males, show unusually high levels of testosterone and a secondary period of growth.

Savannah baboons, below, and spotted hyenas, right, would also be suitable. Like meerkats and naked mole-rats, they live in stable groups though they are not as co-operative and multiple females usually breed in each group. In both species, related females compete with members of other matrilines for social status, which affects their breeding success and the survival of their offspring. Acorn woodpeckers, right, also live in large, stable groups, storing acorns in tree crevices for winter food and, as in baboons, several females compete to breed.

And what about an insect soap opera? Among Polistes wasps, right, the females build and defend communal nests, show a well-defined dominance hierarchy and compete to breed, often eating each others' eggs.

In all of these societies, close observation is likely to show up consistent differences in behaviour and personality between individuals as well as complex strategies of cooperation and competition. The behaviour of meerkats is unusual - but not unique.

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