Why did the meerkat cross the road?
In the natural environment, animals encounter numerous threats and have thus developed various behavioral responses (ETH Zürich, 2013). The Meerkat, Suricata suricatta, has similarly developed an interesting response to man-made dangers such as when crossing a road.
In meerkat social groups, they are matriarchal (Soniak, 2013). Hence, the dominant female is the highest-ranked and leads the group on foraging trips. When meerkats are forced to cross a road, researchers have observed that the dominant female would lead the group to the road. However, upon reaching the road, a lower-ranking meerkat would instead take her place, and become the “guinea pig” to cross the road first (ETH Zürich, 2013). Research has concluded that in 52 road crossings observed in South Africa, 41% of dominant females crossed the road first, and this was the case 84% of the time for subordinates (Perony, 2013).
This is due to the fact that the dominant female has a risk aversion level over 40% higher than her subordinates (Soniak, 2013). Hence, she would fall back to a less risky position when crossing the road. Although perceived as selfish, such behavior actually aids in the sustainability and survivability of the group, as the survivability of the group depends largely on the dominant female (Taylor, 2013). There have been instances where meerkat groups break down when the dominant female is predated. This “selfish” action of the dominant female reduces the probability of putting herself in danger, thus enhancing stability and subsequent reproductive output of her group (ETH Zürich, 2013).
In conclusion, evolution has allowed the meerkats to apply innate risk-averse behavior to not only natural threats, but man-made threats as well in order to survive in the ever-changing natural environment. The video below highlights this behavior, where the dominant female is coloured in red.
“A group of meerkat is crossing the road – subordinate individuals have to take the lead,” by Simon Townsend. Kalahari Meerkat Project. URL: http://images.sciencedaily.com/2013/02/130218173226.jpg (accessed on 6 Apr 2013)
Meerkats use subordinate animals as guinea pigs when approaching novel threats. (2013, 02 18). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/02/130218173226.htm
Perony N, Townsend SW (2013) Why Did the Meerkat Cross the Road? Flexible Adaptation of Phylogenetically-Old Behavioural Strategies to Modern-Day Threats. PLoS ONE 8(2): e52834. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052834
Soniak, M. (2013, 03 05). Meerkat matriarchs are selfish street crossers. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/49194/meerkat-matriarchs-are-selfish-street-crossers
Taylor, K. (2013, 02 19). meerkat bosses use subordinates as guinea pigs . Retrieved from http://www.tgdaily.com/general-science-brief/69601-meerkat-bosses-use-subordinates-as-guinea-pigs
“Model of Meerkat Road Crossing” by Nicolas Perony. YouTube Channel, 13 Feb 2013. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AmdfI18vT4M (accessed on 6 Apr 2013)