Friday, June 4, 1999 Published at 09:11 GMT 10:11 UK
Animal altruism myth exposed
Look out: But meerkats watch their own backs
The co-operative mongoose, long held as a prime example of heroic altruism in the animal kingdom, is a selfish as the next beast, a study has revealed.
The discovery could lead to a better understanding of how humans succeeded in learning to look after one another.
Why some creatures risk their lives for the benefit of others is a puzzle for scientists, because it contradicts an animal's instinct for survival.
But research in South Africa has shown this is not true.
If the meerkats' behaviour was truly altruistic, the scientists reasoned, then:
However, the scientists from the UK and South Africa saw that none of these things actually happened, after watching 18 different groups of meerkats in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park, SA.
They did sound an alarm upon spotting an eagle or jackal, but they were also the first to dash into a nearby burrow. Standing guard gives a meerkat extra time for saving its own skin.
The team also saw that the animals would only stand guard when they were not hungry and when no other meerkat was already on watch. There was no fixed rota of duty.
Professor Timothy Clutton-Brock, from Cambridge University, led the research and says it may explain some aspects of human behaviour too.
"It may provide a potential explanation for the evolution of co-operation behaviour between unrelated individuals and of course the animal which has the most elaborate forms of co-operation is man," he says.
"So possibly this general approach to animal behaviour will in the very long run provide some additional links between the evolution of human co-operation and the distribution of co-operation in animals."
The research is published in the journal Science.