Meerkat Clans Perform War Dances to Scare Off Enemies

Meerkat clans perform a form of "war dance" to scare off enemies and protect their own territory, according to a study.

A team of scientists led by Mark Dyble from University College London investigated interactions between different meerkat groups living in the Kalahari region of South Africa over a period of 11 years.

Their work has revealed that these meetings are often aggressive in nature and sometimes result in deadly fights.

"We show that interactions between meerkat groups are never tolerant, that the majority involve some form of aggression and that a minority result in physical violence," Dyble said in a statement.

For a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers observed 10 meerkat groups containing an average of around 20 individuals. When these groups met, the team identified various combinations of six different behaviors in the 422 interactions that they recorded—which usually lasted around 20 minutes.

"Most of our research on meerkats has focused on cooperation and how they work together within their groups to raise offspring," Dyble told Newsweek. "However, there is another side to meerkats—they are also highly competitive and territorial, with regular aggression occurring between groups. This paper is the result of observing hundreds of these interactions and fights over a decade or more."

The different types of behaviors that the team documented when meerkat groups interact were: initial observation of the rival group, chasing the rival group, performing a war dance, retreating from the interaction, excavating the burrow of the rival group and engaging in aggressive physical contact.

According to the study around 65 percent of the interactions resulted in the meerkat clans either chasing the other group or doing a "war dance"—which involves the mammals sticking their tails up in the air and puffing out their fur. A possible reason for this could be to make the group appear larger.

Eighty-six percent of the interactions ended with one of the two groups retreating before a physical fight occurred. But 9 percent of these interactions ended in violent fights in which at least one meerkat was killed.

meerkat, war dance
A meerkat 'war dance.' Robert Sutcliffe, Kalahari Meerkat Project.

"Most [fights] end after one group chases the other away," Dyble said. "There is a clear group size advantage—larger groups almost always win. Most aggression is initiated by the 'dominant' male and female. Losing groups retreat toward the center of their group territory.

"However, even when interactions between meerkat groups do not result in physical violence, they may have territorial consequences, with losing groups moving to sleeping burrows closer to the center of their territory and winning groups moving to burrows further from the center of their territory," he said.

Meerkats live in highly social groups—usually containing about 20 members—which are dominated by an alpha male and female who produce more than 80 percent of the offspring in the clan. The rest of the group helps to care for these offspring. But when subordinate female meerkats try to breed, their babies are often killed by the dominant female, or they are evicted from the group.

Meerkats mark their territory in a similar manner to some other mammals by defecating and leaving scents at significant boundary sites. They will defend this area using violence if necessary.

"Violence in animals usually involves one individual fighting another," Dyble said. "What we see in meerkats—coordinated aggression between whole groups—is quite rare and was once thought to be unique to humans. By understanding how and why meerkats fight, we can gain clues into the evolution of violence and warfare in humans."