Meerkats manage conflict by taking turns leading

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Disagreements are a normal part of life, not just for humans, but for many other species. How other species manage to resolve disagreements can be helpful for humans to understand, generating insight into other species and helping our own species see other options for fostering coordination and cohesion. Meerkats, for instance, like many species, tend to stay together as a group while foraging for food. This raises questions because meerkats, like other species, differ individually in their need for nutrients and knowledge of where food sources are. Some individuals, such as lactating females, need more food while raising young. Meanwhile, some individuals may know different information about where food sources may be. These factors can lead to disagreements about in which direction meerkat groups should forage. How do meerkats manage to resolve these conflicts and forage together?

Each morning, in their southern African desert habitats where they live, meerkats emerge from their burrow and head off as a group in a direction to forage for insects, fruit, eggs, and scorpions. However, to learn more about how meerkats manage conflict, researchers created a somewhat artificial circumstance, making some individuals in a group aware of food sources and not others. What the experimenters discovered is that, when two different meerkats in a group know about food sources in different directions, the group still doesn’t split up. Instead, the group follows the first meerkat that heads off in a certain direction. It doesn’t matter if that meerkat is a dominant or subordinate individual. If they head off first, that’s where the group follows. This behavior by the group’s followers makes sense: to set off first in a direction suggests strong motivation and likely knowledge about a food source.

But there’s more to the story. The first meerkat to head off in a certain direction – the initiator – isn’t the same every day. Instead, the initiator often changes from one day to the next. If one meerkat who knows about a food source initiates a group’s foraging direction one day, another meerkat who knows about a food source often initiates a group’s foraging direction the next. In other words, being first to pick a direction guides a group’s movements, but taking turns over time being the leader plays an important role in resolving potential conflicts too.

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“We also did not find any significant effect of dominance on attraction success. Therefore, being the first to initiate the group movement seemed to be the most important for other group members to join.” (Bousquet and Manser. 2011:1105)

“However, this consistency of initiators and the scarcity of directional conflict within a morning do not mean that initiators are consistent between mornings. Indeed, over the 5 test days, both trained individuals in every group were followed by group members at least once in the direction of their shape. Therefore, the individual motivation to initiate group departure seems to vary from day to day. This fits in well with the concept of turn taking in which individuals with conflicting information alternate their leadership and therefore diminish the overall conflict costs…” (Bousquet and Manser. 2011:1105)

Journal article
Resolution of experimentally induced symmetrical conflicts of interest in meerkatsAnimal behaviourBousquet CA, Manser MB

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