Meerkats recognize by the voice

Playback experiments reveal the ability to distinguish group members

Meerkat © UZH
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The meerkats in the South African Kalahari Desert recognize members of their own group by voice. This is the first time scientists have demonstrated this in field trials. So far, it has been assumed that the animals identify individuals, but can not clearly distinguish from each other, the researchers write in the journal "Biology Letters". Their experiments refuted this assumption.

"We assume that meerkats can distinguish the individual group members, " says Simon Townsend from the University of Zurich, the first author of the new study. However, it is still unclear which cognitive mechanisms underlie this discernment. In addition, it must be examined more precisely whether the recognition of the group members depends solely on their hearing.

Recognizing other individuals by the voice is easy, people write, the researchers write. Even monkeys like macaques had this ability. Whether other mammals living in social associations could do this was previously unclear. The new study has now confirmed this.

Meerkats make division of labor

Meerkats live in colonies, which usually have up to 30 members. The animals are well organized and share the work done in the group: there are guards, hunters and babysitters.

The communication between the team members is extremely important, the researchers write. The meerkats coordinated their activities with calls and warned the conspecifics, for example, of approaching predators. In previous investigations, many sounds of the meerkats had already been decoded. display

Watchman in the desert: Meerkat in the Kalahari © UZH

Playback experiments with free-living animals

In order to find out whether the animals can recognize voices, the scientists carried out novel playback experiments on free-living terrestrials. In the first attempt, they played the animals one after another two different, but from the same group member originating calls. However, these came from different directions. This situation, which is impossible in reality, would have been contrasted with a realistic scenario, the scientists write. The tested earthenhorns heard the sounds of two different conspecifics.

The earthmongers in the experiments would have responded more strongly to the impossible scenario than to the calls of different individuals. The animals are thus able to distinguish individual members of their group by voice, the behavioral biologists conclude. (Biology Letters, 2011; Doi: 10.1098 / rsbl.2011.0844)

(University of Zurich, 14.10.2011 - DLO)