Kalahari Meerkat Project: The Kalahari Meerkat Project, run by Tim Clutton-Brock and Marta Manser is a long-term research project comprising multiple groups of individually recognisable, habituated meerkats. My research at the project has examined social learning and development, the evolution of teaching and the establishment of traditions.
Social learning and development
Over the course of two months, meerkat pups must acquire the skills required to make the transition from being incompetent foragers to being able to find and handle prey, including potentially lethal scorpions. Interactions with older group members play a major role in the development of all the major components of foraging behaviour in meerkat pups: selecting microhabitats in which to dig for food, digging efficiently, selecting what to eat and handling difficult prey. The degree of social influence varies according to pups’ opportunities for individual learning and the costs involved. At one extreme, adults play an active role by teaching pups prey-handling skills. However, in addition to being taught, pups actively seek information.
My research suggests that pups learn what to eat by eating foods they see adults eating and suitable places to dig for food by digging in places adults have dug. This allows them to acquire critical information, reducing the need for costly and time-consuming trial-and-error learning. Finally, in the development of foraging efficiency, older group members act as food suppliers, but pups appear to largely drive their own development through practice. Although they could gain higher returns through begging for food from adults, pups in good condition invest considerable time in foraging for themselves when young: they can afford to invest time and energy in practising for the future. As a result of this additional experience, they subsequently show higher foraging success individuals which were in poor condition early in life.
The evolution of teaching
Teaching is ubiquitous in human societies, but until recently it was commonly assumed that it is a trait that we alone possess. My work has shown that meerkats teach pups prey-handling skills. This is the first time that teaching has been demonstrated in a wild population. Meerkat pups rarely find mobile food items themselves, but must rapidly learn to handle a variety of difficult prey, including scorpions. Adult meerkats, including parents and other group members, actively teach pups prey-handling skills by gradually introducing them to live prey. This provides pups with otherwise unavailable opportunities to practice handling live prey and facilitates the acquisition of pup handling skills. Teaching in meerkats is governed by simple responses to changes in pup begging calls with age and is not reliant on complex cognitive faculties such as mental state attribution. This finding, along with recent evidence for teaching in insect and bird societies, allows research to move on from the question of whether teaching occurs at all among non-human animals to examine the conditions under which it may evolve and the forms it may take. I suggest that teaching is best thought of as a form of cooperative behaviour that functions to promote learning in others. As with other forms of cooperative behaviour, my work has shown that individual contributions to teaching vary with the costs experienced by different group members.
Social learning and the establishment of traditions
Although there has been considerable theoretical and empirical research into social learning, almost all experimental studies have used captive animals, which may not provide a reliable indication of the relative importance of social learning and of factors affecting the spread and persistence of traditions in natural populations. On the other hand, observational field studies tell us little about patterns of social information transmission, and can seldom determine whether differences between groups arise through social learning or through asocial learning or some other non-cultural process. I have used a series of experiments to look in detail at the factors affecting the spread of social information in groups of wild meerkats. This work is helping to improve our understanding of the action of biases in cultural transmission of as a result of natural social dynamics, as well as examining how opportunities for individual learning can constrain the establishment of group-typical traditions.
You can learn more about this work, and about cultural evolution in general, by visiting Culture Evolves.