If you have ever witnessed a group of smaller animals ward off a larger prey animal, you've seen an interesting animal behavior called "mobbing."
Most prey animals hide or run away when confronted with a potential predator, but the exact opposite behavior, mobbing, occurs in a wide variety of species.
Scientists have long thought that selfless protection of the group was the primary reason for such risky behavior, but new research suggests that mobbing may also be how young animals learn about different predators.
Biologists tested this by watching a wild colony of meerkats, small mongoose-like African mammals that live in cooperative social groups. The researchers observed over five-hundred mobbing events, keeping track of what the meerkats mobbed, which meerkats participated, and the outcome of the confrontation.
They found that meerkats mobbed predators, such as snakes and foxes, aggressively poking, biting and growling at them. However, meerkats also mobbed non-threatening animals such as tortoises, squirrels or even empty cages. In many such cases, the mob quickly lost interest and returned to foraging, even if the intruder did not retreat.
Mobbing behavior also differed by age. Young adults between one and two years old mobbed intruders longer and growled, barked and poked more intensely than did older meerkats.
It isn't clear yet if social learning is the main reason for mobbing in meerkats and other animals, but it is clear that social behaviors, like mobbing, may have many important functions.