You’ve might have heard the African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” But did you know that it doesn’t just apply to humans? Today’s Moment of Science is about how it also “takes a village to raise a meerkat.”
All About Meerkats
Meerkats are extremely social and cooperative critters–not to mention cute! They live in South Africa in groups of two to fifty individuals, and when it comes to raising pups, they always work together.
Typically, in each group of meerkats there is a dominant pair who does most of the breeding. The female gives birth to up to four litters a year, ranging from one to seven pups each. The average is four pups, and the whole group chips in to raise them.
Subordinate, or “helper” meerkats have two main parenting jobs. One is baby-sitting! Each day, when most of the group leaves the den to forage, one or occasionally a few adults stay behind to guard the pups. Baby-sitting is tough work–there’s no eating on the job, and a meerkat can lose one to two percent of its body weight during a baby-sitting day. That’s probably why meerkat moms don’t do much pup watching themselves. They need to feed to regain their strength and keep up their milk supplies.
After about a month, pups join the group’s foraging trips. That’s when the second collective parenting job begins: feeding. Adults bring food to hungry pups. They start with tasty treats like dead insects, then graduate to nearly dead lizards and slightly squirming scorpions. This gradually teaches the little meerkats hunting skills!
After about three months, the pups can forage for themselves, and by the time they’re six months old, they’re ready to help their “village” raise the next litter!