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Animals teach pups with surprising skill, scientists say

July 15, 2006
Courtesy University of Cambridge
and World Science staff

Biologists have long debated whether wild mammals teach their young. Now, researchers say they have found some that do so, with surprising skill.

A meerkat "helper" with thirty-day-old pups. (Courtesy Andrew Radford/ Sophie Lanfear/ Alex Thornton/ Katherine McAuliffe)


Small mongooses known as meerkats—famed for standing patiently on their hind legs, scanning their surroundings—also teach their pups to get food, the scientists report.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, U.K., found that meerkats give pups food that’s at first easy, then increasingly hard to handle as they grow. They also watch how the pups handle the meals, providing encouragement and extra help if necessary.

The findings were published in the July 14 edition of the research journal Science.

Meerkats live in groups of three to 40 in the arid regions of southern Africa. Each group includes a dominant male and female who produce over 80 percent of the pups. But other meerkats older than 90 days, and parents of both sexes, help rear the young. A form of “babysitting” is common.

Younger meerkats initially can’t hunt; they rely on older ones, who respond to their begging calls for food. The animals typically feed on unwieldy and often dangerous prey, including scorpions.

The researchers found that to help pups learn without getting hurt, older meerkats would kill or disable prey before giving it to them. In the case of scorpions, they often removed the stingers. 

The older mammals would adjust these behaviors depending on each pup’s age, recognizable by its call, the scientists reported.

“A greater understanding of the evolution of teaching is essential if we are to further our knowledge of human cultural evolution,” said the university’s Alex Thornton, one of the researchers. 

Scientists have been reporting strides in understanding the evolution of teaching, a long mysterious subject. A study published early this year found that some ants teach each other to find food, in what the authors said might be the first documented case of teaching among non-humans.

A meerkat helping a youngster would also typically monitor it after providing food, the Cambridge researchers said. If the pup was reluctant to handle the prey, the older meerkat would nudge it towards them to encourage it. If the prey wandered off, the helper would retrieve it and return it to the pup, sometimes further disabling it first.

However, intelligent and cute though they may be, meerkats aren’t just about sharing and caring when it comes to the youngsters. Colleagues of Thornton found earlier this year in a study that dominant female meerkats commonly kill and eat their rivals’ young.

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