Any experienced preschool teacher knows well the persuasive power of a treat. Offer up cookies or cupcakes to a gaggle of youngsters and they will happily fall in line for nearly any task—at least until the heavy dose of sugar kicks in. Scientists conducting one of the longest-running animal behavior studies in the world have used a similar approach to encourage cooperation from their subjects. In this case, though, deep in the middle of the parched Kalahari Desert, the currency is water, the subjects are meerkats, and the task is to climb aboard a scale for a weigh-in. During the dry season, it wouldn’t take more than a few precious droplets of water to lure the animals into the weight box, recalls Jen Guyton, who captured this image of scientist Jamie Samson and his charges on her first day as a research intern on the Kalahari Meerkat Project—long before she began winning awards for her photography.
Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are members of the mongoose family that live and breed cooperatively in groups that typically number a dozen or two, and sometimes as many as 50. Distributed across the open, arid habitats of southern Africa, these small but voracious carnivores forage by day, eating nearly anything they can dig up or chase down—most often insects, but also reptiles, birds, eggs, rodents, and scorpions. With little cover among the dunes and shrubs of the desert, meerkats rely heavily on vast networks of burrows within their territories to escape low nighttime temperatures and myriad predators searching for their own meals.
A key to the meerkat’s success in this unforgiving environment is cooperation. For example, one member of the group stands watch while the rest of the clan forages in safety. Research has shown that these sentries use varying sequences and intensities of calls to communicate when the coast is clear, or, if a predator is present, what type and how urgent the danger is. Meerkats cooperate in raising their young, too. While a dominant pair of individuals produces most or all of a clan’s offspring, the other adults pitch in to feed, watch over, and carry meerkat babies from one part of the territory to another when the group relocates. This behavior isn’t strictly voluntary. Dominant females are known to drive off subordinates that attempt to breed, or kill their young if they succeed.
Gaining a deep understanding of how animals like these communicate and cooperate doesn’t happen overnight. Scientists have been studying meerkats in the Kalahari for more than 25 years, observing and documenting the life histories of every member of the study population from birth during that time. To do so, they’ve used an approach called habituation, which, Guyton recalls, “involved sitting still near a burrow of wild meerkats day after day for several months until they relax enough to start ignoring you.” It would often take more than a year of habituation before a previously wild group could be weighed, she says.
While habituation is a seriously time-intensive process, it has given scientists a view into the meerkat’s social system that would otherwise be impossible. Once the animals are comfortable enough to accept a treat—water during the dry season and small pieces of hard-boiled egg during the rainy season—data collection becomes easy. As each meerkat hops up on the scale to accept its reward, a scientist records the animal’s weight. While we might use this sort of information to adjust our caloric intake for the coming day, meerkat biologists use body weight, carefully tracked day after day, to glean much deeper knowledge—which members of the group are pregnant, which are stressed, how well the group is providing for its young, and how taxing it can be to maintain this cooperative system.
What has stuck with Guyton these many years later, aside from the countless hours spent sitting motionless at the edge of a meerkat burrow, is the willing participation of these social animals in their own study—and the intimacy between researcher and study subject. “Without the cooperation of the animals, this research wouldn’t be possible,” she says.
Kalahari Desert, South Africa
Jen Guyton is a National Geographic Explorer, photographer, and ecologist based in Gorongosa National Park. She is working on her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. You can see more of Guyton’s work at www.jenguyton.com.