How do meerkats communicate?


You go ahead and enjoy that peanut butter cookie.
Jeffrey Hamilton/Digital Vision/ Getty Images

You want a cookie? Just go ahead and ask. There you go. While you enjoy that cookie -- what kind is that? peanut butter? -- think about this: How'd you get that cookie? You asked for it. You communicated a desire for a delicious peanut butter cookie by simply choosing the words and stringing them together in a coherent sentence by placing the words in the correct order: "May I have a cookie?" Had you added a "please," all the better, but you could've gotten the idea across by saying "cookie" or even by just pointing at the cookie jar. But you haven't always been able to do this. When you were a baby, it was much harder to express yourself. You had limited means of communication -- screaming at the top of your lungs whenever you were unhappy and cooing when you were content.

Over time, you developed into a person who is perfectly capable of asking for a cookie, whether you use words or gestures. Speech and the ability to gesture can be lost, however, through conditions like paralysis. But communication tends to live on, despite overwhelming odds. Suffering complete paralysis after a stroke, Jean-Dominique Bauby could still move his eyes. He used them to communicate to the entire world, even writing a book, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." Bauby used a special program to select each letter of the memoir by blinking when his eyes settled on the letter he needed [source: NPR].

Communication is important throughout the animal kingdom, too. Take meerkats, for example. Like a lot of other mammals, meerkats use three methods of communication. There's nonverbal communication (or body language), sounds and scents. You probably wouldn't know exactly what point a meerkat were trying to get across if it approached you, limbs flailing wildly, chattering and emitting a terrible smell. But you'd probably figure out that the gestures were meant to intimidate you. Just imagine a human being performing the same nonverbal cues. We can learn other languages, and it turns out that we (specifically, biologists) can translate "meerkatese."

What are these furry desert animals talking about? Find out next.

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Meerkat communication

Meerkats stand guard as sentinels, on the lookout for danger.
Meerkats stand guard as sentinels, on the lookout for danger.
Mattias Klum/National Geographic/Getty Images

Biologists haven't cracked the code of meerkat language to the degree where they understand subtle differences like which meerkats say po-TA-to and which prefer po-TAH-to. But meerkats specialists have gotten a respectable handle on the basics of meerkat communication. And some nuances actually have been uncovered.

As far as sounds go, meerkats have a wide vocabulary [source: Animal Planet]. Meerkats purr to show contentment and attachment. They chatter when they're nervous, and they squeal when danger presents itself. Meerkats also use sounds to coordinate their hunting efforts. When the dominant female and male wake up and decide it's time to forage for food, one or both will emit a call for the rest of the gang to follow them [source: Roberts].

Meerkats are very territorial and tend to clash when two gangs meet. Most of the time, these meetings (which biologists call intergroup interactions) are usually just shows of force more than actual violence. But for one gang to enter another's territory, a boundary has to be crossed. This is where scent communication comes in. Meerkats demarcate the boundaries of their claimed area by emitting a scent. This scent is generated in the anal glands and is mixed with urine. It may sound a bit off-putting, but meerkats are hardly the only mammals to mark their territory in such a manner. Your dog or cat at home does much the same thing.

With all of the danger posed by their desert environment, meerkats always have sentinels -- lookouts or guards -- scanning for danger whenever the group is active. Whether pups are playing in the open or the gang is following the dominant male and female foraging for food, there's always at least one meerkat watching out for danger. When a sentinel spots a jackal approaching, it will utter a cry of alarm to warn the rest of the gang. But this call will be different than the warning yelp given for an eagle seen circling off in the distance. That's because meerkats have different types of sounds to distinguish where the threat is coming from -- land or air [source: Roberts].

The alarm system of sound communication among meerkats is even more intricate than this. A meerkat sentinel who sees an imminent threat -- say that eagle's gotten a lot closer -- will emit an urgent squeal. A far-off snake, which meerkats can generally chase away by mobbing it (forming an intimidating throng around it), may only elicit a nervous chatter from the sentinel. Essentially, the alert system signals to the others what the sentinel sees.

Body language also plays a major role in a dangerous situation. When a meerkat sentinel issues a warning, he or she stares directly at the threat. By watching the direction of the sentinel's gaze, the meerkat gang can tell which direction the treat is coming from. If the danger is near, the sentinel will dash into a bolt-hole, a hiding place that meerkats dig. The rest of the mob will take a cue from the sentinel and run for cover, too.

As for what meerkats chat about when they've taken cover together in a bolt-hole and a jackal's nose enters, we may never know.

For more information on meerkats, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Marais, Karen. "Meerkats and prairie dogs. Biodiversity. May 3, 2006. http://bcb705.blogspot.com/2006/05/meerkats-and-prairie-dogs.html
  • Roberts, Miles. "Warriors of the Kalahari." Smithsonian Zoogoer. January/February 2007. http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Publications/ZooGoer/2007/1/meerkats.cfm
  • "'Diving Bell' celebrates life of mind." NPR. November 30, 2007. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16780118
  • "Meerkats unmasked live chat transcript." Animal Planet. 2003. http://animal.discovery.com/fansites/wildkingdom/meerkats/expert/expert_2.html
  • "Southwest African slender-tailed meerkat." Jacksonville Zoo. June 2001. http://jacksonvillezoo.org/animals/biofacts/SWAfricanMeerkat.asp