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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 July 2006, 22:49 GMT 23:49 UK
Meerkat pups go to eating school
Making the grade

Meerkat pups do not learn how to eat dangerous animals such as scorpions on their own but are taught by adults, scientists have discovered.

Researchers found that adults bring dead animals to the youngest pups.

As pups get older, helpers disable live prey for them; finally they coax the youngsters to hunt for themselves.

Writing in the journal Science, the scientists suggest meerkats are only the second non-human animal species found to teach its young actively.

The only other clear demonstration of teaching behaviour in species other than Homo sapiens is, they say, the finding reported earlier this year that ants can help their fellows locate food.

Costly lessons

Pups need to learn how to deal with these difficult food items, it's absolutely imperative, otherwise they probably wouldn't survive into adulthood
Alex Thornton,
Report co-author
The scientists, from Cambridge University, have spent a number of years working with wild meerkats in South Africa.

The animals live in groups of up to 40 in very dry conditions.

Most of the individuals in the group will be related to the dominant male-female pair, which produce most of the offspring.

There are lots of other adults to help; and help they evidently do.

"Helpers will gradually introduce pups to live prey," scientist Alex Thornton told the BBC World Service Science in Action programme.

"So when pups are very little they get brought dead prey, like scorpions, lizards, and spiders; as they start to get older, helpers will bring them prey that's been disabled, so if it's a scorpion the helper might bite the sting off before giving it to the pup.

Meerkat pup begs for food (Katherine McAuliffe)
(Image: Katherine McAuliffe)

"Then finally when the pups are approaching independence, the adults will give them live food that the pups have to deal with on their own, and it seems that these changes in helper behaviour are in response to changes in the pup begging calls."

To investigate whether the teaching process actually helped the pups handle the potentially dangerous scorpions, Dr Thornton's group ran several experiments.

In one, they took three groups of pups from the same litter. Over a period of four days, one group was given live scorpions minus their stings, one group was given dead scorpions, and the third received boiled eggs as a control.

"Then on the fourth day we tested them all with a live scorpion," said Dr Thornton, "and lo and behold the one that had practised with the live scorpion was the best out of the three."

Essential tools

Teaching can clearly carry an evolutionary benefit because it transfers skills and information which can keep youngsters alive, but it also carries a cost to the adult.

Meerkat adult and pup (Andrew Radford)
Meerkats become independent hunters at about three months old (Image: Andrew Radford)
It takes time and effort which the adult could be using to find food for itself.

So teaching might be expected only to evolve where pups would find it hard to absorb information just by watching.

The meerkat might be one such species, with the social structure of groups meaning there are adult helpers available to help with education.

"It is costly in meerkats, but I think the benefits of teaching outweigh the costs," said Dr Thornton.

"Pups need to learn how to deal with these difficult food items, it's absolutely imperative, otherwise they probably wouldn't survive into adulthood; and when pups are little, they are just incompetent, they are really bad at finding food.

"I don't think that teaching is restricted to meerkats at all, I think it's probably more common than we realised."

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