The KMP – The Kalahari Meerkat Project is easily one of the most comprehensive and successful wildlife studies on earth. It was founded by Tim Clutton-Brock, an animal ecology professor at Cambridge University, and is run by a variety of scientists and volunteers, who are working to understand the meerkat’s unsolved mysteries. They have made countless discoveries since the project’s founding in 1993 related to the ecology and evolution of the meerkats.
The Methods – To achieve this level of success, the project has had to create a method to keep a detailed weight chart of every meerkat under their management in order to measure the animals’ foraging habits. The meerkats have gotten used to the weight scale and receiving eggs as a reward, and some of them have become extremely comfortable around humans. In fact, even the show “Meerkat Manor,” which highlighted a few meerkat groups and their daily lives, was filmed on the site. The show uncovered fascinating meerkat behavior from an intimate vantage point and furthered the habituation process even more. The success of the habituation made it easy for us to understand the data collection process and execution of a thriving wildlife behavior project.
The Initial Task: Finding the Meerkats – The sun had not even shown its first rays as some elands and a herd of springbok grazed in the dim light of dusk. Though the poor road conditions made it necessary to travel in a sturdier 4×4 vehicle, finding the group’s sleeping burrow turned out to be even more of a challenge. Telemetry, a form of radio tracking that sends radio signals between a collar or tag to a transmitter, was the only way to look for these animals because no one had watched them disappear into a burrow the night before.
The Appearance – Suddenly, after half an hour of waiting, the receiver, with its high-pitched beep, got progressively louder as the signal drew closer. The tracker eventually pinpointed the burrow, which allowed us to sit around the edge of the meerkats’ deep sleeping tunnels. Eventually, a faint sound, coming from underground, revealed the meerkat’s exact location. A golden brown head popped out and did a quick survey of her surroundings. This meerkat, who was the matriarch of the group, barely even noticed us as she dug out a slightly larger space so the rest of group could easily exit. She quickly dropped back inside and was followed by a different meerkat. After several minutes, the whole group had looked out and began to completely exit their sleeping quarters.
Meerkat Behavior – Once they came out of the burrow, the meerkats foraged in the area with their three pups, while periodically stopping to take guard by standing on their hind legs and searching for predators such as eagles, hawks, jackals, and snakes. They were by far the most active meerkat group we had seen, possibly due to the group’s size and general personality or the pups’ eagerness to eat and explore. Eventually, they continued actively foraging, catching everything from insect larvae to scorpions.
War Dance – One meerkat climbed up on a dead tree and perched high in the air at his lookout position. He came down and foraged with the group until they suddenly started acting really strangely. The meerkats got on all fours, put their tails up, and started bouncing on their legs like they were on a trampoline. According to our host volunteer, this behavior is called war dancing and only happens when one group encounters a foreign group. Eventually, this bouncing behavior became more aggressive. It is at this point that the aggressive meerkat group exhibited dominant behavior, by showing their teeth and speeding towards them, as the other group quickly turned around and ran.
The Groups Reunite: Once the pursuing group caught up with the others, they were no longer aggressive. The previously hostile meerkats showed less threatening dominant behavior, such as rubbing their hips against the others and standing above them, while the former defensive meerkats acted submissively, giving up power and lying on their sides. After these brief, minute-long interactions, both meerkat groups united as they continued foraging for the rest of the morning.
The Range of Groups – Experiences like these twice a day for four days offered a unique insight into this extraordinary project. Partaking in a range of data collection procedures helped demonstrate the project in its entirety. We spent time with several meerkat groups since each one has a different group size with varying characteristics. This contrast of different groups reveals a social complexity that is only found in a few social mammal species.
Overview – Our time in the Kalahari helped us understand the mechanics of an animal study and how the thoroughness of the meerkat project had made it so prosperous. I hope to volunteer there one day and contribute to this ongoing meerkat research project.