Meerkats might look like some of the cutest and most manageable animals that our Carnivore Keepers care for, but don’t be fooled.
According to Carnivore Supervisor Louise Ginman, Meerkats are the most political animals her team cares for. In fact they rank above the Asiatic wild dogs.
A Meerkat mob is lead by an alpha female and male. These two are the breeders of the group. Often beta meerkats don’t or can’t breed. It’s not known why they cannot – it may be that females are so stressed that they stop cycling, or that the top female gives off pheromones that reduce the lower females’ ability to fall pregnant.
In 2009 there was no clear leader at Taronga’s Meerkat Desert. During this time one of the posturing females, “Malawi”, produced pups, but it wasn’t too long after that her rival, “Sahara”, succeeded in claiming the top position.
According to Louise, Sahara was a wonderful head female. As the alpha, she managed the mob effortlessly and was very secure, asserting her authority only when required.
Meerkats work their way to the top through their interactions with the other members of the group. Simple behaviours such as taking the best food or spot for sunning is how you become the leader. This process often results in small scuffles or jostling as members of the mob learn to ‘give way’. If they don’t, fights can become really vicious and heated.
In August two years ago, Sahara’s leadership was challenged by Malawi and her offspring “Zanzibar” and “Nairobi”. The Meerkat Keepers were keeping a very close eye on the group and when scuffles turned into fighting the keepers stepped in to divide the group in two.
This wasn’t a simple process, and it took keepers over six months to eventually get the mob unified as one again. Keepers meticulously rotated every individual during this time to ensure bonds were maintained. Even Sahara and Malawi were still in eye sight of each other via mesh during this entire period.
Female meerkats have much higher levels of aggression than males. Why? Because they invest so much in producing young, and therefore the right to breed and succeed is well worth the effort. But equally males can have political issues too, although, they kept their noses out of the power struggle between Malawi and Sahara.
Two years on, neither Sahara nor Malawi is the alpha female. For now they have been succeeded by the next generation. Nairobi, born in 2009, started to assert her position from about three years of age, and to date there has been a relatively peaceful change in hierarchy.
Louise says that Nairobi is very comfortable with her role as leader, asserting herself only when necessary, and for the moment, no one in the mob dears challenges her authority.
Next time your visit the Meerkats (along the Big Cats Trail, map reference 16I), watch and enjoy their interactions!