Meerkats begin playing soon after they emerge from their litters and start exploring the Kalahari Desert in Africa. As one young meerkat leaps atop another and pins his or her victim, nipping playfully, the other may break free and run off, only to regroup and stage a faux attack. Or young meerkats may gang up on one luckless pup. In short, it's cute.
But it must also serve some other purpose, since play among meerkats is actually quite dangerous. When young meerkats play, they're hardly paying attention to their surroundings. This exposes them to predators -- like eagles and jackals -- looking for an easy lunch. For a trait to be passed along, it must ensure survival of the species. So the trait of meerkat play is actually counterintuitive; it should've been phased out since it hampers meerkat survival.
So play should have some benefit to meerkats, since it remains an active trait. What is it? This, it turns out, is the $64-thousand question.
One theory is that play strengthens the social bonds of the meerkat gang. Think about it: When you played with other kids in your neighborhood, you formed friendships. Usually, the more you played, the stronger your group got. And on the rare occasion when one member of your group brought someone new to play, he or she was treated like something of an outsider -- maybe even picked on. That's because the new person hadn't formed the social bonds that the other members of your group had. This is the basic premise of social bond theory [source: Goodban]. It was tested on meerkats by biologist Lynda Sharpe.
Since 1996, Sharpe has studied meerkats firsthand in South Africa and sought to get to the bottom of the mystery behind their sporting behavior. She observed a specific group of meerkat littermates at play over the course of a couple of years. To test the social bond theory, Sharpe posited that those meerkats that played the most would form the strongest bonds. These bonds would be reflected later in life through a meerkat's willingness to support the social group structure (for example, by baby-sitting or accepting a subservient role to a dominant female or male). The social bond developed from play should also predict which meerkats formed dispersal groups -- groups of young adult meerkats who form independent gangs [source: Sharpe].
Sharpe's investigation was inconclusive. She couldn't find an underlying reason to explain why meerkats play. But she was able to further meerkat research through her observations. She found, for example, that meerkats tend to play with the opposite sex. And their play doesn't appear to be part of a long-term survival strategy. They don't seek out play in younger groups, whose members they could dominate. Likewise, young meerkats aren't hesitant to play with older meerkats who can dominate them [source: Sharpe]. All of these findings, including Sharpe's observation that playgroups aren't reliable indicators of membership in later dispersal groups, poke holes throughout the social-bonding explanation for meerkat mischief.
And Sharpe's findings also undermine the theory that meerkats play to learn aggressive behavior. Those meerkats who didn't romp as much as others were no less aggressive over food, territory or dominancy in the gang than those who frolicked frequently. While Sharpe didn't find the reason why meerkats play, her observations may someday help unlock the secret to this behavior -- not just for meerkats, but for all of us animals.
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