July 13, 2006
Meerkats teach their young to hunt, study finds
WASHINGTON -- Meerkats actively teach their young how to catch and eat their prey, British researchers said in a study that is one of the first to prove that animals show such complex behavior.
While animals are known to learn from one another by watching, the team at Britain's University of Cambridge said they had demonstrated that the animals actually teach, as defined by clear principles.
Older meerkats will bite the stinger off a live scorpion and give it to a youngster to kill and eat, and if the pup fails to do the job before the prey can crawl away, will nudge it back, Alex Thornton and Katherine McAuliffe reported.
Older meerkats -- not necessarily the parents -- will watch youngsters to see how they are doing, the researchers report in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
Meerkats are a type of mongoose and live in groups of three to 40 in dry regions of southern Africa. Each group includes a dominant male and female who produce 80 percent of the pups, and older animals that help to watch over and rear the young.
The animals rely on hard-to-catch prey such as grasshoppers, and various species of scorpions, including poisonous ones.
Thornton and McAuliffe watched 13 different groups of meerkats as part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, in South Africa's Kuruman River Reserve.
They used accepted criteria to define teaching: that an individual modifies its behavior only in the presence of a naive observer, that the "teacher" gets no benefit from its actions and in fact may lose opportunities to forage itself, and that the "student" learns more rapidly than it would have on its own.
"Teaching is ubiquitous in human societies, but although social learning is widespread in other species, it is not yet clear how commonly teaching is involved," the researchers wrote.
The meerkats demonstrate clearly that they teach, and do not merely allow the pups to learn by observing, Thornton and McAuliffe said.
"A greater understanding of the evolution of teaching is essential if we are to further our knowledge of human cultural evolution and for us to examine the relations between culture in our own species and cultural behavior in other animals," Thornton said in a statement.