Are meerkats naturally generous?

Meerkat Altruism

A meerkat stands sentinel, on guard for threats to the rest of the gang.
A meerkat stands sentinel, on guard for threats to the rest of the gang.

When meerkats are still weeks-old pups, they learn to take care of themselves. First, pups are shown how to find food. Meerkats are largely insectivores -- 82 percent of their diet is composed of insects [source: University of Michigan]. An older meerkat might show them that rocks hide fat millipedes underneath or that thorny brushes contain birds' nests filled with tasty eggs.

At just a few weeks of age, meerkat pups aren't fully able to feed themselves, even when they're lucky enough to find food. They know how to beg, however. Pups emit a high squeal directed toward foraging adults. And adults always feed them, even when the pups aren't their own offspring.

So meerkats feed the young in their gang. Perhaps it doesn't seem like such a big deal, but consider this: Meerkats don't store food. They're foragers and eat what they find on a daily basis. This makes sharing food with youngsters take on an even more generous aspect. What's more, there's a high likelihood that the adult offering food to the pup is not that pup's parent. More than 80 percent of all meerkat pups that survive to emerge from their litter in any given gang are produced by one dominant female [source: Roberts].

The hierarchy of dominance explains much of the altruism displayed within meerkat gangs. The dominant male and female unquestionably rule the gang, and the remaining subservient meerkats adopt an it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child mentality. But while this social stratification sets the stage for an expectation of altruism on the part of the subservient masses, it doesn't fully explain this generosity. After all, if times get really tough, they can always just escape: Meerkats often leave their gang with other subservient members, forming dispersal groups to found new gangs. Even within these new gangs, the generous nature of meerkats emerges once again (along with a new dominant male and female).

These acts risk the life of the meerkat undertaking them and provide few recognizable benefits for him or her. For example, whenever meerkats gangs are active, a lookout is posted. There's always at least one of these guards -- called sentinels -- determinedly watching the surrounding area for imminent danger. These threats come in the form of other gangs, martial eagles (which love to eat meerkats), or, on occasion, a bat-eared fox who has woken up a little early for a night of hunting. When danger presents itself, the sentinel calls out to the rest of the gang, which heads for bolt-holes -- hiding places meerkats create -- scattered throughout their territory to provide quick cover.

What's odd is that different subservient meerkats take over for guard duty without any discernable schedule. They appear to simply recognize that the position needs to be filled and stand guard. What makes the act so altogether altruistic is that the sentinel is giving up valuable time to forage for food. However, this altruistic act was explained by a report in 1999 that showed the sentinel was in the best position to escape danger. After 2,000 hours of study, researchers found that no sentinel was killed by a predator, and each one was the first to make it to safety [source: BBC].

But standing sentinel and offering food aren't the only seemingly altruistic acts meerkats perform. Read the next page to find out more.