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Meerkat Matriarchs Are Selfish Street Crossers

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Why did the meerkat cross the road? To get to the other side. How did the meerkat cross the road? Like a chicken. 

From flocks of migrating birds to human friends on a road trip, lot of animals travel in groups. When they run into trouble during these trips, they'll often change their formation so they can better deal with the problem and keep themselves safe. When a flock of sheep encounter a predator, for example, they clump together, and each individual sheep tries to move towards the center of the group and away from the vulnerable edges, while the group collectively moves away from the threat. In the same situation, elephants form a defensive circle around the calves while the matriarch of the group inspects the threat and may charge at it. Alpha male baboons likewise take up a position at the edges of their groups when moving through dangerous areas in order to protect more vulnerable individuals.

What if the danger to the traveling party isn’t the same old predator that’s been hunting a species for thousands or millions of years, though? What if it's a relatively new threat, like man-made roadways? To find out, Simon Townsend, who studies animal communication and cognition at the University of Zurich, looked to meerkats. 

These members of the mongoose family are highly social and live in groups of up to 50, led by a dominant mating pair. They deal with predator attacks from both land and air, and deploy subordinate group members as sentries to keep watch while the group forages. In South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, they also have to contend with roads that cut through their territories. 

Meerkat groups are matriarchal, so the alpha female runs the show and leads the group on foraging trips and burrow excavations and in conflicts with other meerkat groups. Given their importance in the group, Townsend figured that these females would be wary of the danger that roadways presented. Specifically, he predicted that even given the novelty and recent appearance of the roads, the matriarchs would position themselves deep within the group to maximize their own safety while crossing. 

After periodically watching different meerkat groups at the road over the course of a year, Townsend found that while the alpha female usually started at the front of the group in the walk to the road, more than half the time they dropped back into the middle of the group and let one or more subordinate females go first as they crossed. When the lower-ranking females were at the front of the group to begin with, they tended to stay there when crossing the road. Using this data, Townsend created computer simulations of meerkat crossings that allowed him to quantify the shuffling of positions that happened at the side of the road, and found that the dominant females were about 40 percent more risk averse than the other females. 

Chimpanzees, Townsend points out, also change their behavior in response to the danger posed by roads. While crossing, the alpha male and other high-ranking males usually take up exposed positions at the front and rear of the group so they can scan the road or keep an eye on all the other group members. In the way they handle a road crossing, both these meerkats and chimps are showing off their mental flexibility, applying and adapting old behaviors to new threats. 

In comparison to the chimps, who take up more vulnerable positions that allow them to protect the group, the meerkat matriarchs’ retreat to the middle of the group seems selfish. It’s still for the good of the group, though: The matriarchs are the core of the meerkat social structure, and when they die, groups have been known to completely break down and disperse, leaving lone animals to fend for themselves. Being a wimp and moving in the middle of the pack reduces both the risks to themselves and to group stability. 

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Animals
7 Fun Facts for Elephant Appreciation Day
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Happy Elephant Appreciation Day! Celebrate the occasion with some facts about everyone's favorite gentle giant. 

1. ELEPHANTS CAN RECOGNIZE OTHER ELEPHANT CARCASSES.

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The University of Sussex's Karen McComb told National Geographic that elephants "become excited and agitated if they come across a dead elephant," and, in particular, will investigate skulls and tusks. McComb teamed up with researchers at the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya to study the behavior, showing wild elephants a range of objects that included skulls. They found that the elephants examined skulls—and tusks in particular—of their own kind twice as long as other skulls, and examined tusks six times as long as they did pieces of wood. They were even able to recognize elephant skulls with the tusks removed, but didn't show preference for certain elephant skulls over others, which suggests they didn't know which skulls belonged to their own relatives. "Animals that are intensely social in life may be most likely to display an interest in their dead," McComb told National Geographic. "But what goes on in their minds while they are doing this is a total mystery."

2. THEY'RE SCARED OF BEES.

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Forget about mice scaring off elephants: When farmers need to keep elephants away from their crops, they should use bees. Researchers in Kenya discovered that even the recorded sound of buzzing bees was enough to make elephants retreat—and cause them to emit a low-frequency sound, inaudible to humans, that warns other elephants of the bees' presence.

"It's impossible to cover Africa in electric fences," Lucy King, author of the paper, told The Huffington Post. "The infrastructure doesn't exist in many places and it would restrict animals' movement." But something like a bee fence—hives strung on strong wires a certain distance apart that would move when elephants walked into them, disturbing the hives—"could be a better way to direct elephants away from farmers' crops," she said.

3. THEY MIGHT UNDERSTAND POINTING.

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Humans often use pointing as a way to nonverbally get a message across, though not many other animals grasp the concept. But according to a two-month study of 11 tame African elephants, these pachyderms might be able to: When presented with two identical buckets and pointed in the direction of the one containing food, elephants picked up on the cue fairly consistently: Elephants had a success rate of 67.5 percent (1-year-old humans have a success rate of 72.7 percent). But an earlier study of Asian elephants indicated that they don’t notice pointing gestures, which is a bit of a mystery.

4. ONE ELEPHANT CAN "TALK." 

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Koshik, an elephant in a South Korean zoo, developed the ability to imitate the sounds of five words he's heard from his trainer—annyeong (hello), anja (sit down), aniya (no), nuwo (lie down), and joa (good)—by sticking his trunk in his mouth. The scientists who first noticed Koshik’s ability speculate that he learned to “talk” because he was lonely.

5. THEY'RE DIGITIGRADES.

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It's Latin for "finger walking," and what it means is that elephants walk on their toes (there are five of them, as well a sixth false toe). According to the book Mammal Anatomy: An Illustrated Guidemost of the animals' weight "rests on a broad pad of elastic tissue behind the toes" which "acts as a shock absorber and prevents the skeleton from jolting too much when the animals walk. It also allows elephants to move surprisingly quietly despite their size."

6. AN ELEPHANT PREGNANCY LASTS ABOUT TWO YEARS.

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If you thought being pregnant for nine months was a long time, be glad you're not an elephant, which can be pregnant for up to 680 days, according to the BBC. All that time in the oven has a benefit, though: Elephant calves are born with highly-developed brains, capable of learning their herd's complex social structures and ready to put their trunks to use.

7. NINETY-SIX ELEPHANTS ARE KILLED IN AFRICA EVERY DAY.

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Unfortunately, elephant poaching remains a very big problem: An estimated 35,000 elephants are killed annually, their tusks sold illegally in the ivory market. Do the math, and that comes out to nearly 96 elephants every day. Find out what you can do to help elephants and stop poaching at 96Elephants.org.

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Animals
The Real Story Behind Frida, The Rescue Dog in Mexico Gaining Viral Fame

On Tuesday, September 19, a deadly 7.1 magnitude earthquake rocked the center of Mexico. Three days later, rescue workers are still searching for survivors, and among the humans digging through the rubble is a four-legged helper named Frida.

Frida the rescue dog, named after Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, has offered a ray of positivity to people around the world following the devastating news that’s come out of Mexico this week. As a starring member of the Mexican Navy’s Canine Unit, it’s her job to sniff out people trapped by natural disasters, all while wearing goggles, booties, and a harness to keep her safe from debris. The 7-year-old lab has detected 52 people throughout her career, 12 of whom were found alive and successfully rescued, according the Los Angeles Times.

Since the Mexican Navy shared a collage of the rescue dog last week on Twitter, Frida has been declared a hero by the internet. She’s been featured on numerous websites and was the subject of one tweet that has received more than 50,000 likes. But while Frida is doing important, life-saving work that’s every bit worthy of praise, some of the information surrounding her is inaccurate.

Several outlets have misreported that the rescue dog has saved 52 lives following Mexico's earthquake, while in reality 52 is the total number of people she has located, dead or alive.

Fortunately the viral confusion doesn’t make her story any less inspiring. Frida is an invaluable member of her team, often crawling into spaces that humans can’t reach. Like the rest of the rescue workers responding to this week’s earthquake, Frida is a hero to the victims and their loved ones.

For a closer look at how she’s able to pull off such incredible work, check her out in the canine training video below.

[h/t Los Angeles Times]

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