Imvubu Newsletter

Meerkats top of class at teaching

© Thibedi, L. 2006 Imvubu 18: 2.

Scientific research has found that the Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) are not only pretty looking but are also the only intellectual wild animals where the adults make an effort to actively teach their young. In most of the wild animals the parents assume that the young will pick it up as they go along. After observing meerkats from Africa the researchers from the University of Cambridge, Alex Thornton and Katherine McAuliffe, concluded that wild meerkats school their own and relatives’ young. They show the young what is edible and what is dangerous instead of teaching the young by just eating in front of their pups like other animals do with their young.

Older meerkats, not necessarily their parents, look for their pups and introduce them to food, starting with dead insects and grubs, then injured and finally fully grown prey. The study found that the adults keeps an eye on the pups’ attempt to overcome and eat prey and will intervene to encourage them to be brave. After a helper gives a pulp a food item it normally remains with it and monitor its handling of prey. If pulps do not attempt to handle a prey item, helpers sometimes nudge the item repeatedly with their noses or paws. Then pulps finally consume the prey successfully. As they grow older and become more capable of handling prey, the older ones pass over prey that is more difficult to handle.

In their conclusion, the researchers mentioned that their study strongly verifies that provisioning behavior of meerkat helpers comprises a form of ‘opportunity teaching’ in which teachers provide pupils with opportunities to practice skills, thus facilitating learning. They believe that teaching allows more efficient information than passive forms of social learning. Thornton was quoted saying: “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.”

© The Times News Service, London.

Extracted from Sunday Times Newspaper, 16/07/2006