Meerkats teach their young how to hunt by dismembering scorpions

Again, sometimes the articles are just for my amusement and edification. This is one of those. Non-geeks are likely to want to skip ahead to another article.

Meerkats apparently live off a diet of scorpions – the kind that can kill an adult human. Sure, the Meerkats have some resistance to the poison, but those pinchers can still do a job on the Meerkat. Adults have learned how to handle their prey so as not to get stung or pinched. The young ones, however, haven’t learned how to do this, so the adults teach them in stages.

First, the adult brings dead scorpions in. As the young Meerkats age, the adults start bringing in live but partially dismembered scorpions. Eventually, they bring in fully capable scorpions and let the young ones tear them up.

Instead of letting their young figure out how to hunt dangerous scorpions on their own, older meerkats collect and disable the prey so the youth can learn how to deal with the feisty food.

The discovery, detailed in the July 14 issue of the journal Science, is one of the few examples of teaching in animals.

. . .

Meerkat hunters rapidly bite their prey’s head or abdomen to disable its attack, but young pups lack the experience for the task. Instead of allowing pups to learn by trial and error and risk receiving a potentially life-threatening sting, other meerkats older than three months take the pups under their wing to show them how its done.

“When pups are really young, helpers find and kill a scorpion and bring it to the pup,” said study co-author Alex Thornton of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

The helpers respond to the pups’ begging calls, and as the cries sound more and more mature, the teachers increase the difficulty of the lesson. Instead of a dead scorpion, teachers remove the stinger from a live scorpion and present it to the pups. At this stage in the pupil’s tutelage, if the scorpion escapes, the teacher nudges it back for a second try.

Once the pups have mastered disabled prey, teachers bring an unaltered scorpion to the classroom for their students to tackle.

It’s a very interesting article.  The rest of the article talks about the believed evolution of teaching.  Since typically animals don’t behave this way, as far as teaching the young to hunt, scientists reason that there must be some benefit to the adults that outweighs the time lost from hunting and feeding.  Read the whole article if you want to learn some of the hypotheses.

[tags]Meerkats, Evolution, Teaching, Dismembering scorpions[/tags]