How do meerkat groups choose a dominant female?

Meerkats, shown from the second season of the Animal Planet series "Meerkat Manor," are a pretty cooperative species. This includes grooming one another. See more meerkat pictures.

It's no secret that girls, particularly teens, have been accused of being catty. Competition is sometimes stiff among girls, especially when the attention of a boy is on the line. But human females have nothing on meerkats. While meerkats maintain cooperative societies, this term is a bit misleading. It's true that meerkat females all pitch in to help raise the gang's or mob's young, but the willingness to do so comes from the threatening dominant female.

That's because meerkat societies are supported by exceptionally strong hierarchies. Gangs consisting of anywhere from five to 30 meerkats are ruled by a dominant male and female. Everyone beneath this king and queen is something of a commoner, with the dominant meerkats running the show.

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The position of dominant female in a meerkat mob is a pretty important one. Research into meerkats has found that they cooperatively breed. This means that the vast majority of offspring (pups) is produced by just one female -- you guessed it, the dominant female. The other females help raise the pups. Meerkats adhere so strictly to cooperative breeding that studies of meerkats have shown that a dominant female can be responsible for up to 80 percent of the pups produced in a gang each year [source: National Geographic].

What's more, the dominant female is the one who gets to pass her genes along. By holding a virtual monopoly on reproduction among the group, future generations of the meerkat gang will be her offspring. And since meerkats generally keep to themselves (they don't always get along well with other meerkat mobs), it can be tough for nondominant females to find a mate. Since there appears to be a biological urge among all living things to pass along their genes, the dominant female position in meerkat gangs is a coveted one

-- and jealously guarded by the title holder.

So how do meerkats choose which lady is the lucky winner? Find out on the next page.

Dominant Female in a Meerkat Gang: The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love

In a meerkat gang, like the one shown from season two of Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor," up to 80 percent of the offspring are produced by one female. The average dominant meerkat produces 74 pups in her lifetime.
In a meerkat gang, like the one shown from season two of Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor," up to 80 percent of the offspring are produced by one female. The average dominant meerkat produces 74 pups in her lifetime.

When humans choose to reproduce, there's little need for group input. In meerkat societies, however, a female's chances of getting pregnant depend largely on her status in the group -- mainly, whether or not she's the dominant female.

A female meerkat can become the dominant lady in her gang in a couple of ways. She can seize the title after the former dominant female has died or moved away. Or she can attain the pinnacle of the meerkat hierarchy by simply leaving the mob to form her own elsewhere. She'll have to have a bit of charisma to try the latter method; it generally takes a supportive group of subservient females to begin a gang.

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But charisma won't do it alone. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology stated that there are also more subtle factors at play in the likelihood of a female meerkat emerging as the head honcho among her peers. A greater number of females already present in the group lowers a female's chances of attaining and keeping dominance, since more females equals more contenders for the title. This is especially true when there are a large amount of older females present in a gang -- the older meerkats have already established dominance and will be reluctant to give up the position [source: Hodge, et al].

And just how much tenacity a female shows also accounts for her ability to be dominant. The position can be a fleeting one in a meerkat gang. One of the requisite traits of the dominant female meerkat position is aggression to an astounding degree. Dominant female meerkats must keep their reproductive competitors at bay for around three weeks at a stretch [source: University of Cambridge].

Chasing off other females who are of reproductive age does more than just keep the dominant female's challengers at bay. The stress of being cast out of the highly cooperative group and forced to fend for themselves can also wreak havoc on these outcast females' abilities to reproduce. Sometimes the stress even leads to miscarriage in a pregnant subordinate female who finds herself on the outs with the dominant female. Even more, it can affect the fertility of the outcast female.

The dominant female has to be choosy about whom she chases off, however. Her ability to produce large amounts of offspring (and thus maintain her royal title) depends largely on the presence of other females who help her raise her pups. A large pool of females mean that the dominant one has more helpers to raise her pups. This gives her time to mate even more, and if she runs off too many of her subordinate females, the reproductive survival of the gang will be at risk.

­But subordinate females can be just as aggressive as their queen. Research shows that while the dominant female tends to be the most aggressive female in any gang, a subordinate female can gain dominance by attacking the pups of her dominant counterpart [source: Hodge, et al]. By killing successive litters, the subordinate can take the top position for herself, since a female's position of dominance is based largely on the success of her reproduction.

This kind of gang warfare makes bouts of jealousy among human girls pale a bit by comparison.

For more information on meerkats and other related topics, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Clutton-Brock, Tim. “March of the meerkats.” The Independent. December 3, 2006. http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/march-of-the-meerkats- 426630.html
  • Hodge, Sarah J., et al. “Determinants of reproductive success in dominant female meerkats.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 2008. http://www.zoo.cam.ac.uk/zoostaff/larg/pages/Hodge%20et%20al%20 Determinants%20of%20Breeding%20Success%20JAE%202008.pdf
  • Norris, Scott. “Murderous meerkats moms contradict caring image, study finds.” National Geographic. March 15, 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/03/0315_060315_meerkats .html
  • “Dominant meerkats render rivals infertile.” University of Cambridge. August 8, 2006. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/08/060808091758.htm
  • “Meerkat information.” Fellow Earthlings’ Wildlife Center. 2007. http://www.fellowearthlings.org/info.html