Keepers are seeing a changing of the guard within the Meerkat group at Taronga Western Plains Zoo, as the 11 year old dominant female Umi starts to show her age.
Umi has been the dominant female since her arrival from Auckland in 2010. Together she and the dominant male Maputo have produced 15 offspring, 10 of which remain at Taronga Western Plains Zoo making up our family of 12.
The current group of six males and six females rely solely on the dominant pair to reproduce, mimicking how the hierarchy works in the wild. Large groups in the Kalahari will see individuals fight to acquire the top spot and with that position comes responsibility. The dominant pair choose the most opportune time to breed and are the only individuals that are allowed to do so. Punishment for stepping out of line within the group can include isolation, aggression and even pups being killed. For this reason most Meerkats can go their entire life without reproducing.
The life expectancy of a Meerkat in the wild is 10 years of age, and in Zoos Meerkats can live up to 14 years of age. At 11 years old Umi is struggling to maintain the dominant position, with her eldest daughter Akiki, 5 vying for the top job. Keepers are currently seeing Umi showing signs of subordination towards Akiki, as Akiki throws her weight around. If this change in hierarchy continues, steps will be taken to find an appropriate mate for Akiki if breeding is to continue within our current group.
As for Umi, as she ages she will take on a more subordinate role. She can often be seen sunning on her favourite rock on sentry duty. This hierarchical shift may all change again with the Zoo’s new Meerkat exhibit just beginning the construction stage and the family set to move towards the end of the year. But for now keepers continue to monitor behaviour closely as it all unfolds.
Karen James, Meerkat Keeper at Taronga Western Plains Zoo