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Decoding the secret language of meerkats

Meerkats are fascinating group-living animals known for their complex social structures and constant communication. They are almost always on the move, making continuous series of noises that one might call “meerkat language.”

Recently, researchers have decoded how wild meerkats use two specific types of vocal interactions to stay in touch with their group mates.

What is a meerkat?

Meerkats, small carnivorous mammals belonging to the mongoose family, inhabit the arid regions of southern Africa. These highly social creatures live in close-knit groups called mobs or gangs, which typically consist of up to 30 individuals.

Meerkats work together to survive in their harsh desert environment, with each member of the mob playing a specific role in maintaining the group’s safety and well-being.

Meerkats exhibit a unique behavior known as sentinel duty, where one meerkat stands on its hind legs atop a termite mound or other elevated location to keep watch for potential threats.

The sentinel alerts the mob of any approaching predators, such as birds of prey or jackals, by letting out a distinct bark or whistle.

Upon hearing the alarm, the other meerkats quickly scramble to safety, either by diving into their underground burrows or seeking shelter in nearby vegetation. Meerkat languages plays a very key role in their sentinel system.

Understanding meerkat language

A recent study by researchers from the Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour at the University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior sheds light on this vocal behavior.

Published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the study reveals that meerkats use two distinct types of calls: “close calls” and “short notes.”

Close calls: The call-and-response mechanism

“Close calls” function as a call-and-response exchange between meerkats.

Postdoctoral researcher Vlad Demartsev explains, “The first sound, a ‘close call,’ is like a call-and-response exchange between the animals. When one meerkat calls, a neighbor is likely to reply.”

This type of communication ensures that the meerkats remain in constant touch with one another, reinforcing their social bonds and coordination.

Short notes: The broadcast system

On the other hand, “short notes” are used to announce an individual’s presence without necessarily expecting a direct reply.

“The second call, named a ‘short note,’ announces ‘I am here’ but doesn’t necessarily get a direct reply from communication partners,” Demartsev adds.

These calls are more like a broadcast aimed at the whole group, ensuring that everyone is aware of each other’s presence.

Vocal exchanges in meerkat language

The researchers liken the “close calls” to having a conversation with a partner, while “short notes” are similar to making an announcement to a large crowd.

“It is impossible to hold a conversation with 20 people, so we normally talk to one partner at a time,” says Demartsev.

Close calls facilitate a direct exchange between meerkats, whereas short notes are more generalized broadcasts.

To understand these vocal interactions better, Demartsev and Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin, along with their team, deployed collars on meerkats at the Kalahari Research Centre in South Africa.

These collars recorded continuous audio data and GPS positions every second.

This innovative approach allowed the researchers to create synchronized recordings, pinpointing which animal produced which sound at what time and location.

Importance of group cohesion in meerkats

The behavioral ecologists then prepared a vocal timeline for the entire group and analyzed the data.

“We saw that when a close call is given, there is a very high probability that within less than half a second a nearby neighbor will respond. But when we have a short note, we do not have this pattern. All of them are calling nearly at the same time and there is no structure,” Demartsev explains.

This analysis highlighted that meerkat calls are not isolated events but part of a continuous stream of communication. Staying in a group is crucial for meerkats.

They use these vocal mechanisms to avoid getting separated, which can lead to increased risks of predation or harassment by other groups.

“When meerkats are by themselves, there is a higher chance of predation or harassment by other groups. Generally, meerkats, therefore, try very, very hard to stay together,” says Demartsev.

Understanding meerkat language and vocal strategies

This interesting study provides new insights into the vocal communication strategies of meerkats.

By understanding the nuances of meerkat calls, researchers can better appreciate how these animals maintain their social structures and survive in the wild.

The findings underscore the importance of continuous communication in meerkat groups and open up new avenues for studying animal behavior and social interactions.

The full study was published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.


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