Are meerkats’ barks worse than their bites?

Filed under:wildlife, southern africa, meerkats et al. — posted by d2d on Thursday, September 7, 2006 @ 20:41

Meerkat playfighting“As I watched Goblin shift his hold on Sprite’s throat, and the pair twisted over in a spray of sand, I knew Goblin was most likely to win… if the practice theory was correct. Goblin had devoted more time to play than Sprite, and so had had more opportunity to practise his fighting manoeuvres. He was also more skilled at these combat moves, winning play fights more often than Sprite. And when the pair had played together, it was Goblin who’d won two-thirds of their wrestling matches. As the battling meerkats disappeared below ground, the group gathered excitedly in the burrow’s entrance, jostling to peer down the hole, their arms thrown around each others’ shoulders as they craned to see. Their tension was palpable, and so was mine. Would Goblin win?

Growls and squeals drifted up from below. We waited patiently. Only Morgause seemed unaffected by the excitement, calmly grooming her fur. Suddenly a meerkat shot out of the burrow. It streaked away, crossing the wide, shrubby flats at a hard gallop. But who was it? Tension in the group intensified; all eyes were fixed on the burrow - even Morgause’s. Then, swaggering thriumphantly despite a noticeable limp, XXX strutted out. He approached Morgause warily, sinking down beside her as she leant across and nonchalantly began to groom the blood from his fur.”

This account of the final battle about Morgause’s (the widowed dominant female of the Young Ones mob) paw, between littermates Goblin and Sprite (of Elveera mob) is probably as exciting as research gets - and Lynda Sharpe may still think about a second career in writing thrillers should research get more boring after this. During her 4-year PhD studies in the Kalahari Meerkat Project, Lynda documented 27000 playfights and a mere 18 dominance fights trying to answer a seemingly simple question: Do playfights train meerkats for the real fights, or are they just fun? Why should youngsters waste engergy on play when they could use it to grow?

The question whether playfighting is just honing skills for the final dominance fights is also the subject of an article by Lynda in Africa Geographic (Sept 2006, p. 35-39) - and a good read for anyone who can’t get enough of exciting meerkat stories :-)
The answer to Lynda’s practise theory was a simple “no”. Hard players are not automatically dominance winners. So the question about the innermost meaning of play remains.
But anyway - did you ever think about why humans play?

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