Meerkats are social animals that are very resourceful and family-orientated, as long as you know your place in the hierarchy. A peaceful group will look out for each other on sentry duty, take it in turns to babysit youngsters and help train the pups.
But all is not peaceful at Taronga Western Plains Zoo at present with the possible arrival of a new litter of Meerkat pups. Our dominant female in the group has had five litters, totalling 13 pups over the last two years and she doesn’t seem to be slowing down with keepers preparing for a possible birth in the coming weeks. Although we cannot confirm the suspected pregnancy without anesthetising and ultrasounding our female, her current size and behaviour suggests that our group are expecting some new additions.
In Meerkat groups, only the dominant pair breed, with any subordinate females running the risk of been banished from the group if they are found to be pregnant or their pups could be killed. This strict hierarchical structure assists with controlling numbers and ensures that only the strongest Meerkats are reproducing.
Currently we are experiencing some aggression from our dominant female ‘Umi’ towards her three eldest daughters ‘Akiki’, ‘Mwali’ and ‘Zuka’. This aggression can be an instinctive response to a threat to her hierarchy. In the wild mature females can be pushed out of the group when the dominant female is pregnant to elevate threats to her control during birthing, this is called ‘dispersal’ behaviour. The aggression involves chasing, posturing, tail biting and is mostly an intimidation tactic from the dominant female. Usually this aggression subsides once the dominant female has given birth and those females that where being isolated take on the important role of babysitter and order is restored.
Although keepers are monitoring the current situation closely, it is difficult to determine when to intervene. Small scuffles and posturing can be an important part of the leader asserting her dominance and if an individual is removed from the group, it can be very hard and dangerous to reintroduce them. However, if at any time the keepers think that a life is in danger or welfare is compromised then they will take the appropriate action.
The close bond that has been formed between the Meerkats and their keeper has meant that any wounds sustained from this aggression are able to be easily monitored by vets and treated quickly.
If you would like to learn more about Meerkats then visit our Keeper Talk and Feed at 9:50am daily.
By Karen Ellis, Meerkat Keeper