Meerkat To Meerkat: I Hear Ya!

Oct 23, 2011 By Arati Rao
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Have you been to a forest, or a farm, or any place where you can hear animals call? If you listen very carefully, you’ll realize that not all calls are the same. There are alarm calls, mating calls, reassuring calls, territorial calls, and all kinds of sounds that animals make.

Can an individual animal recognize another individual by sound alone? The answer, amazingly, is yes. Until now, this has been shown possible only in monkeys (apart from humans, of course). But, this time, scientists found something interesting, which might have wide repercussions on the animal kingdom.

Meerkats!

For the first time, scientists have shown that a meerkat could recognize the sounds made by another member of its group. Meerkats are social animals – they forage for food in groups and are constantly making noises, basically to convey to the others things like, “I am here,” or “this is my territory.” They live together and raise young together – but until now, it was not established that one animal could communicate with another individually.

The experiment

This new experiment was conducted in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. The scientists placed speakers on either side of a meerkat that was looking for food. At first, they played a call from a member of its group on one speaker, then a call from another member on the other speaker. Then they played a trick on the meerkat. They played a call from one member on one speaker again, and repeated the same call from the other speaker on the other side! The meerkat reacted immediately. This was not what it expected. How can the same friend be in two places at once?! This made the meerkat very vigilant. But it also told the scientists that the meerkat realized the call was from the same individual. This was significant.

The results

Repeating the experiment and the “control” (the control is the situation which is normal – in this case, where calls from two different individuals are played from the two speakers), the scientists saw that the meerkats would stop foraging and look towards or prick their ears up towards the side of the “strange same call.”

The meerkat findings are the first non-primate clues to social communication at the individual level. More significantly, this means that voice recognition or recognition of individuals by call is more widespread in the animal kingdom than has been previously thought.

This opens the door for more modifications to our assumptions about how animals behave and cognition in them.

An excellent video presented by the inimitable Sir David Attenborough: