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Meerkat Matriarchs Are Selfish Street Crossers

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Why did the meerkat cross the road? To get to the other side. How did the meerkat cross the road? Like a chicken. 

From flocks of migrating birds to human friends on a road trip, lot of animals travel in groups. When they run into trouble during these trips, they'll often change their formation so they can better deal with the problem and keep themselves safe. When a flock of sheep encounter a predator, for example, they clump together, and each individual sheep tries to move towards the center of the group and away from the vulnerable edges, while the group collectively moves away from the threat. In the same situation, elephants form a defensive circle around the calves while the matriarch of the group inspects the threat and may charge at it. Alpha male baboons likewise take up a position at the edges of their groups when moving through dangerous areas in order to protect more vulnerable individuals.

What if the danger to the traveling party isn’t the same old predator that’s been hunting a species for thousands or millions of years, though? What if it's a relatively new threat, like man-made roadways? To find out, Simon Townsend, who studies animal communication and cognition at the University of Zurich, looked to meerkats. 

These members of the mongoose family are highly social and live in groups of up to 50, led by a dominant mating pair. They deal with predator attacks from both land and air, and deploy subordinate group members as sentries to keep watch while the group forages. In South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, they also have to contend with roads that cut through their territories. 

Meerkat groups are matriarchal, so the alpha female runs the show and leads the group on foraging trips and burrow excavations and in conflicts with other meerkat groups. Given their importance in the group, Townsend figured that these females would be wary of the danger that roadways presented. Specifically, he predicted that even given the novelty and recent appearance of the roads, the matriarchs would position themselves deep within the group to maximize their own safety while crossing. 

After periodically watching different meerkat groups at the road over the course of a year, Townsend found that while the alpha female usually started at the front of the group in the walk to the road, more than half the time they dropped back into the middle of the group and let one or more subordinate females go first as they crossed. When the lower-ranking females were at the front of the group to begin with, they tended to stay there when crossing the road. Using this data, Townsend created computer simulations of meerkat crossings that allowed him to quantify the shuffling of positions that happened at the side of the road, and found that the dominant females were about 40 percent more risk averse than the other females. 

Chimpanzees, Townsend points out, also change their behavior in response to the danger posed by roads. While crossing, the alpha male and other high-ranking males usually take up exposed positions at the front and rear of the group so they can scan the road or keep an eye on all the other group members. In the way they handle a road crossing, both these meerkats and chimps are showing off their mental flexibility, applying and adapting old behaviors to new threats. 

In comparison to the chimps, who take up more vulnerable positions that allow them to protect the group, the meerkat matriarchs’ retreat to the middle of the group seems selfish. It’s still for the good of the group, though: The matriarchs are the core of the meerkat social structure, and when they die, groups have been known to completely break down and disperse, leaving lone animals to fend for themselves. Being a wimp and moving in the middle of the pack reduces both the risks to themselves and to group stability. 

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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