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Study reveals dark side of ‘cute’ meerkats as natural born killers

Cute and cuddly image shattered as study shows they kill their own young to survive

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 9:25pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 2014, 9:25pm
 

One captivating sight of African wildlife features dark-eyed meerkats standing side by side on their hind legs, as if posing for a group photograph. They look cuddly and endearing. But a new study reveals their dark side.

The dominant female meerkat in a group banishes the other females when they give birth - killing and even eating their offspring to ensure a plentiful food supply for the alpha couple's own pups and a labour pool of meerkat babysitters who do not have their own young to rear.

In the media, meerkats have a gentler image, inspiring a character in Disney's animated film, The Lion King, and a television documentary series, Meerkat Manor, that told the story of a meerkat family in southern Africa; it explored the meerkats' often harsh existence, but also gave names to the animals, which helped to get viewers emotionally involved.

"Flower", one such meerkat, might be better named "Cannibal" in light of the study.

The recent study by a group of British and South African universities, as well as the Kalahari Meerkat Project, in South Africa, builds on observations that dominant meerkats use violence to regulate breeding in their own group and to survive in tough, desert environments.

"Since meerkats are cute and fluffy, and have been saccharine, anthropomorphised poster children for happy family life, it comes across as more shocking," said Dr Matthew Bell, of the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences, in Scotland, the study's leader. He said that contrary to the public perception, meerkat lives were "nasty, brutish and short".

The study, published in July's online journal, Nature Communications, analysed the effect of giving contraceptive injections to adult female helpers in 12groups of meerkats in the Kalahari Desert to ensure they could not reproduce for six months.

It showed, for the first time, the benefits that dominant meerkats gain from suppressing their subordinates.

During that period, dominant females were less aggressive towards subordinates, foraged more, gained more weight and had bigger pups, the research showed. Female helpers, in turn, provided more care and food for the dominant female's offspring, according to the research.

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