Meerkat underdogs could be best at problem-solving

Last Updated: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 - 10:37

London: Researchers have shed light on “what drives individuals to innovate, and what psychological mechanisms allow them to do so”.

The new study took into consideration Meerkats, who are extremely social mongooses. They take turns foraging for food and standing guard to look out for predators

Meerkats stick paws and noses into many a crevice while hunting for their favourite food - scorpions.

And research has now shown that the more subordinate members of meerkat troops are the most “innovative” when it comes to foraging, the BBC reported.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge discovered that low-ranking males were best at solving problems that earned them a food reward.

When “guard meerkats” spot a predator, they warn the rest of the group with repeated staccato alarm cries. Scientists who have studied these calls have insisted that the animals produce slightly different sounds depending on the urgency of the threat

The same researchers who set these tasks for the meerkats have earlier found that the animals have “traditions” - set ways of behaving within their group.

While members of one meerkat troop will constantly get up very early, those of another will always emerge from their burrows much later in the morning.

Dr Alex Thornton, an animal behaviour specialist from the University of Cambridge, who led the study and his team set “tasks” for a group of wild meerkats in the southern Kalahari Desert.

The researchers left out closed transparent containers with opaque lids that the animals had to work out how to open so as to reach a scorpion inside.

Dr Thornton said that with meerkats, “it seems it’s more about persistence than intelligence”.

“They don’t seem to work out the rule - to attack the opaque part of the different apparatus,” he explained.

“When you give them a new task, they go back to square one. They tend to just keep scratching away fruitlessly at the transparent sides [of the container] rather than going straight for the opaque part that will give them the reward.”

Meerkats reside in groups of up to 30 animals with one dominant and several subordinate males

Despite this apparent lack of skill, the low-ranked males outperformed all other members of the group. They plainly would not give up until they had worked out how reach the scorpion.

Dr Thornton asserted that these subordinate adult males were the ones that left their group to find mates, “so it’s beneficial for them to be willing to take risks and try to solve new problems when they encounter them”, he said.

The researcher added that, although many researchers have suggested that innovation may be “cognitively demanding”, these results indicated that “simple, conserved learning processes and dogged perseverance may suffice to generate solutions to novel problems”.

“I think the phrase that best describes this is ‘necessity is the mother of invention,” said Dr Thornton.

“If you’re dominant, you can bully and steal stuff from others.

“If you’re subordinate, it may pay for you to take risks and figure things out for yourself,” Dr Thornton added.

The study has been published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

ANI



First Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 - 10:37

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