Meerkat School

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This story came out a couple weeks ago in Science, but I didn't read about it until flipping through The Week a few days ago.

Researchers in the Kalahari Desert recently observed meerkats teaching their young how to bite the stinger off a scorpion before eating it. "So what?" replied my mailman when I told him about it. "Well", I said to Andy the mailman, "This is the only other mammal that's been found actively teaching its young. Most other animals seem to learn through observation, but not direct teaching." "Cool, here's your mail."

Meerkat hunters rapidly bite their prey's head or abdomen to disable its attack, but young pups lack the experience for the task. Instead of allowing pups to learn by trial and error and risk receiving a potentially life-threatening sting, other meerkats older than three months take the pups under their wing to show them how its done.

The helpers respond to the pups' begging calls, and as the cries sound more and more mature, the teachers increase the difficulty of the lesson. Instead of a dead scorpion, teachers remove the stinger from a live scorpion and present it to the pups. At this stage in the pupil's tutelage, if the scorpion escapes, the teacher nudges it back for a second try.

Once the pups have mastered disabled prey, teachers bring an unaltered scorpion to the classroom for their students to tackle.

This discovery brings the number of species known to teach their young to three. The other two are humans and a certain species of ant.

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August 2, 2006 - 7:07am
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