If you were to type “Compare the Meerkat” into your search engine, you would be greeted by a legitimate website where you can, actually, compare meerkats. There is nothing scientific about this process; you choose a preferred size, an occupation of choice (ranging from “Collect the Stamps” to “Piano Tinkling”) and desired location (from Rio to Western Super Mare), and you are matched with a meerkat to then compare with another generated specimen. It really is simples.
My sister Kirsty MacLeod compares meerkats, but for real. She graduated from University of St Andrews in 2009 with a degree in Zoology and, after gaining entry to Cambridge University last summer, she has spent 6 months to date in the Kalahari desert, time devoted mainly to running around with meerkats on her head whilst blogging about it.
Unlike my use of the Compare the Meerkat website, she doesn’t do solely it for fun. She is beginning her PhD in “Offspring sex ratio bias in meerkats”, which I will put into quotation marks because I really don’t know what it means. So, I asked her to explain what she means by “offspring sex ratio bias” as if speaking to an Arts student, or a five year-old, to which she replied “Sex ratio bias is a deviation from the normal 50:50 sex ratio we expect in most species towards an excess of males or females, and is driven by the process of natural selection.” Ah yes, “natural selection”, that old Darwinian chestnut. Those two little words chilled the Victorians of Darwin’s day to their core; the suggestion that something as equally uncontrollable as divine intervention was dictating life on earth caused quite a stir…but trust a rookie to reference Darwin. Those two simple words were my default answer in every life-form based exam, but what I thought of as merely the cornerstone of Higher Biology dictates much more than eye colour. “Natural selection” ensures the inheritance of physical characteristics favourable to the animal’s environment, thus guaranteeing the preservation of strong genotypes and the survival of the species. What Kirsty’s studies are attempting to uncover is whether the process of natural selection in meerkats goes beyond determining which of these physical attributes are perferable, and asks if natural selection in meerkats could potentially determine which gender is more favourable to the meerkat’s family at the time of reproduction.
When it comes to sex ratio, it seems as though the survival of meerkat families is not simply a case of “survival of the fittest”. Kirsty explains, “It’s not a concept we’re familiar with as humans, because our species is relatively unusual in that there isn’t a difference in cost of producing either a son or a daughter. Remember that the real reason any living thing procreates is essentially self-promotion – we want as many of our genes in the next generation as possible – and the next, and the next. The ability to bias the sex ratio of your offspring is thought to be beneficial in cases where producing more of one sex will help you achieve that aim.” To put it plainly, optimum breeding requires an optimum male to female ratio, thus it could be the case that female meerkats of breeding age have the power to assess the existing ratio, and alter it by reproducing accordingly. That is, Kirsty is in the process of investigating the extent of control that female meerkats have in determining the sex of their pups, according to the needs of the family at a specific time. “Only one female breeds per group,” she explains, “and there’s a lot of competition for that role”, a role that essentially decides the fate of the group, should Kirsty’s research prove the theory.
I often wondered why meerkats became so appealing to my sister. She had already spent the previous two summers in South Africa working with cheetahs, so meerkats seemed like a mammalian downgrade, albeit an entertaining one. Alexzander the Meerkat, it seems, had little to do with her decision. After an enjoyable undergraduate module on Breeding Systems, Kirsty looked to meerkats as their system is a particularly interesting one. Collecting data, though laborious, offered a unique opportunity to witness meerkat behaviour first-hand. Kirsty recalls “We aim to be a non-interactive part of their routine, but obviously you get to know their separate personalities, and they do come and check you out when you’re sitting at the burrow in the morning, and clamber on you. Most of the interactions are positive – a sign that they’ve really accepted you as part of the group is when they groom you with their teeth like they do each other – very sweet!”
Amongst the volunteers certain meerkats became legendary as the nature of the research meant that they could become familiar with the animals on a one-to-one basis. “Every night around the dinner table we’d end up talking about the meerkats, and everyone had their favourites, something that was always hotly debated! My favourite group were called Sequoia – Bruce, the dominant male, always guarded on ridiculously high trees, or at the top of a bush, and that always made me laugh. Some were instantly recognisable, like Paymister, a really sexy, silvery-coloured meerkat male who often sneaked away from his own group to look for lady friends elsewhere.” But Kirsty came back from the desert with more than just stories. A small scar on her wrist is a reminder of one particular meerkat, Finn McCool, a well-known figure from Kirsty’s blog and the meerkat she describes as “my nemesis”. Upon leaving the project, Kirsty named her little meerkat wards wisely, “I actually got quite serious about mine. I called one “Tobermory” after my hometown, and the other “Fingal”, who legend has it came from Mull and was the arch-rival of Finn McCool – they had a fight and threw rocks at each other across the Irish Sea, which led to the formation of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway. It’s my way of telling Finn, the demon meerkat, that I’ll be back, and I’m leaving a pup to keep an eye on things!”
To read more about Kirsty’s PhD: http://www.zoo.cam.ac.uk/zoostaff/larg/pages/KIRSTYMACLEOD.html
To read about Kirsty comparing meerkats: http://kalahari-kirsty.blogspot.com/
To compare meerkats: http://meerkat.comparethemarket.com/home