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Meerkat Matriarchs Are Selfish Street Crossers

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Getty Images

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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Animals
This Is the Age When Puppies Reach 'Peak Cuteness'
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iStock

All puppies are cute, but at some point in a young dog's life, it goes from "It's so cute I could squeeze it to death" to merely regular cute. But when? According to one recent study in the journal Anthrozoös, peak cuteness hits between 6 and 8 weeks old for many dogs, The Washington Post reports.

Finding out when puppies reach their peak attractiveness to humans may give us insights into how domestic dogs evolved. Researchers from the University of Florida asked 51 students at the school to look at 39 black-and-white images of dogs, who belonged to three different breeds and whose ages ranged from birth to 8 months. The viewers then rated them on a sliding scale of squishability.

The results will sound familiar to dog lovers. Puppies aren't entirely adorable immediately after they're born—they can look a little rat-like—and the participants rated them accordingly. As dogs get older, as much as we might love them, their squee-worthy cuteness declines, as the attractiveness scores reflected. The sweet spot, it turns out, is right around when puppies are being weaned, or between 6 and 8 weeks old.

The participants tended to rate dogs as most attractive when the pups were within the first 10 weeks of their lives. According to the results, Cane Corsos were at their cutest around 6.3 weeks old, Jack Russell terriers at 7.7 weeks old, and white shepherds at 8.3 weeks.

The study only used still photos of a few breeds, and it's possible that with a more diverse sample, the time of peak cuteness might vary a bit. Certain puppies might be cuter at an older age, and certain puppies might be cuter when they're even younger. But weaning age happens to coincide with the time when puppies are no longer getting as much support from their mothers, and are thus at a high risk of mortality. By evolving to attract human support at a time when they're most vulnerable, puppies might have boosted their chance at survival until they were old enough to completely take care of themselves.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Martin Wittfooth
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Art
The Cat Art Show Is Coming Back to Los Angeles in June
Martin Wittfooth
Martin Wittfooth

After dazzling cat and art lovers alike in 2014 and again in 2016, the Cat Art Show is ready to land in Los Angeles for a third time. The June exhibition, dubbed Cat Art Show 3: The Sequel Returns Again, will feature feline-centric works from such artists as Mark Ryden, Ellen von Unwerth, and Marion Peck.

Like past shows, this one will explore cats through a variety of themes and media. “The enigmatic feline has been a source of artistic inspiration for thousands of years,” the show's creator and curator Susan Michals said in a press release. “One moment they can be a best friend, the next, an antagonist. They are the perfect subject matter, and works of art, all by themselves.”

While some artists have chosen straightforward interpretations of the starring subject, others are using cats as a springboard into topics like gender, politics, and social media. The sculpture, paintings, and photographs on display will be available to purchase, with prices ranging from $300 to $150,000.

Over 9000 visitors are expected to stop into the Think Tank Gallery in Los Angeles during the show's run from June 14 to June 24. Tickets to the show normally cost $5, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting a cat charity, and admission will be free for everyone on Wednesday, June 20. Check out a few of the works below.

Man in Garfield mask holding cat.
Tiffany Sage

Painting of kitten.
Brandi Milne

Art work of cat in tree.
Kathy Taselitz

Painting of white cat.
Rose Freymuth-Frazier

A cat with no eyes.
Rich Hardcastle

Painting of a cat on a stool.
Vanessa Stockard

Sculpture of pink cat.
Scott Hove

Painting of cat.
Yael Hoenig

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