Magazine article Science News

Live Prey for Dummies: Meerkats Coach Pups on Hunting

Magazine article Science News

Live Prey for Dummies: Meerkats Coach Pups on Hunting

Article excerpt

Meerkats are natural teachers--one of the few animals other than people so far shown to have the knack, say researchers.

Older hunters gradually introduce pups to the art of eating dinner before it runs away, reports Alex Thornton of the University of Cambridge in England. In the July 14 Science, he and his Cambridge colleague Katherine McAuliffe argue that these interactions meet the criteria for teaching.

"It's really important to understand simple forms of teaching if we're going to understand how human teaching evolved," says Thornton.

The definition of teaching that Thornton and McAuliffe use requires that in the presence of pupils, the teacher does something special or performs a task less efficiently than it would on its own and that the pupils learn faster than they would without the teacher's activity. Researchers previously argued that a British species of ant meets these criteria.

To test these ideas in meerkats, Thornton and McAuliffe worked with animal groups in the Kalahari Desert, including the animals now starring in the television series Meerkat Manor.

When pups first tag along with a foraging party, they're "fairly incompetent" says Thornton. They raise a racket of what he describes as "vaguely birdlike" begging calls.

The researchers tallied more than 2,000 instances in which an adult presented a pup with a lizard or other prey. For the youngest pups, 65 percent of those servings were alive, but for the oldest pups, almost 90 percent were still living. …

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