Animals moving together in the wild often shuffle their group arrangement when confronted with possible dangers. For example, sand fiddler crabs draw closer together if a predator is nearby. Among baboons, the dominant male protects other members of his group by leading or bringing up the rear.
The study authors wanted to know how animals responded to threats imposed by humans, such as roads. So they watched four groups of meerkats in South Africa as the animals crossed a busy road near the Kuruman River Reserve, observing 52 crossings in all.
The dominant female meerkat led the group to the road more than half of the time, the team found. But once the animals reached the road, that female tended to hang back and let another meerkat take the lead. Dominant females continued leading the group across only 41 percent of the time; in contrast, subordinate meerkats who led the group to the road also led across the road 84 percent of the time.
This strategy favors the dominant female because she doesn’t occupy a risky position in the group while crossing. But it also might help the group as a whole since the animals depend on that female to hold the group together and reproduce.
The study suggests that meerkats can “process and react to novel threats,” the authors write. “These results provide a glimmer of hope for the notion that animals can adapt and co-exist successfully with humans, despite our ever-increasing encroachment.” — Roberta Kwok | 21 February 2013
Source: Perony, N. and S.W. Townsend. 2013. Why did the meerkat cross the road? Flexible adaptation of phylogenetically-old behavioural strategies to modern-day threats. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0052834.
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