How do meerkat groups choose a dominant female?

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.

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.

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  • Clutton-Brock, Tim. “March of the meerkats.” The Independent. December 3, 2006. 426630.html
  • Hodge, Sarah J., et al. “Determinants of reproductive success in dominant female meerkats.” Journal of Animal Ecology. 2008. Determinants%20of%20Breeding%20Success%20JAE%202008.pdf
  • Norris, Scott. “Murderous meerkats moms contradict caring image, study finds.” National Geographic. March 15, 2006. .html
  • “Dominant meerkats render rivals infertile.” University of Cambridge. August 8, 2006.
  • “Meerkat information.” Fellow Earthlings’ Wildlife Center. 2007.