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10 Fascinating, Furry Facts About Meerkats

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Non-animated versions don’t typically befriend warthogs or lion cubs, but real live meerkats have plenty of adorable quirks of their own.

1. They Recognize Each Other’s Voices.

Just as humans can identify our friends’ and family’s voices over the phone, a 2011 study showed that meerkats can distinguish between the calls of different members of their clan. Scientists played a recording of the same meerkat from hidden speakers on opposite sides of test animals. According to WIRED, "The situation was similar to hearing a friend shout from the kitchen, then from the second-floor bathroom just a second later." Indicating that they recognized this as an impossible situation, the test meerkats showed “a prolonged vigilance, paying much closer attention than they did to other recorded calls. The situation didn’t compute.”

2. They Work Together ...

Meerkat clans, also known as mobs and gangs, hunt together in a collaborative effort that involves designated lookouts who rotate regularly and rely on a series of distinct calls to communicate to their compatriots. If a predator like a snake is detected, the gang will gather to harass the snake, biting and clawing at it until it retreats or is killed—a bold move one meerkat could never attempt alone.

3. ... And Even Babysit Each Other’s Pups.

While most of the gang is out foraging and hunting for food—or standing guard—one male or female, adolescent or young adult stays behind in the burrow to “babysit” any pups. This is not an official job—whichever adult is least hungry is put on pup-sitting duty—but the other meerkats do reward their sitter with food at the end of the day.

4. They Teach Their Young.

Adult meerkats are immune to scorpion poison—a good thing when you regularly make treats out of the stinging arthropods. But it takes talent to tuck into that sort of prey—even with their poison nullified, a scorpion can still do damage with his pinchers—and pups aren’t born prepared for such a vicious meal. Research done in 2006 showed that “helper” meerkats actively teach the younger generation how to hunt through a series of increasingly difficult tasks. "So when pups are very little they get brought dead prey, like scorpions, lizards, and spiders; as they start to get older, helpers will bring them prey that's been disabled, so if it's a scorpion the helper might bite the sting off before giving it to the pup,” scientist Alex Thornton told the BBC.

5. Gangs are Matriarchal.

Meerkat gangs, which can reach up to 40 or 50 animals, are structured around an alpha couple to whom most of the other members are somehow related. Within the dominant pair, ultimately it is the female who rules the burrow, and she isn’t always a benevolent boss. Only the alpha female is allowed to reproduce; if subordinate females get pregnant, the alpha female will banish them from the burrow or even kill their pups. Research conducted in 2013 found that some subordinate females will serve as wet nurses to alpha female pups in order to re-ingratiate themselves after getting banished.

6. Matriarchs Are Really Really Selfish.

As if infanticide and exile weren’t bad enough, alpha females only have their own interests at heart. A 2013 study showed that when a gang of meerkats approaches a road—which represents an unknown and potential danger—alpha females tend to suddenly fall back, letting lower ranking females brave the pavement first.

7. They Use Their Bellies To Keep Warm.

Meerkats' fuzzy tan coats give way to a sparsely covered patch on their underbellies [PDF]. The hair is thin enough there that you can see their black skin underneath—which is precisely the point. After a restful night in the chilly burrow, meerkats climb back out into the desert sun and stand up to expose to their bare bellies to the rays, which absorb heat and warm the animals up.

8. The Forked-Tail Drongo Mimics Meerkat Calls.

The African drongo scavenges for food by tricking other animals into abandoning their hard-earned meals with carefully crafted calls that imitate the warning sounds of other species. So after a gang of meerkats has made their kill or foraged sufficient food, the drongo will descend among them and mimic the same warning call a meerkat sentry might make in the event of a predator. The gang scatters, and the drongo gets a free meal.

9. Baby Meerkats Rely On Their Plaintive Calls For Free Food

This is another indication of just how specific and diverse meerkat sounds can be. A 2009 study showed that adult meerkats are more susceptible to spoiling their babies when the wee meerkats beg for food and attention with squeaky, high-pitched cries. As the pups age and their voices deepen, their mews have less of an effect on the adults around them, and they are forced to learn to forage for themselves. Researchers tested this by playing baby sounds around adult meerkats, who were suddenly inspired to give up their meals to older juveniles.

10. They Have Gang Fights.

Although they are social and even affectionate within their clan, meerkats are highly territorial and will engage in violent, all-out turf wars with neighboring gangs. The fights are waged as a collective, with each gang posturing and attempting to intimidate the opposition first. If this fails, the fight will be brief but deadly—less than half all adult meerkats survive any given year.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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Slow Motion Is the Only Way to Appreciate a Chameleon’s Lightning-Fast Tongue
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From the unusual way they walk, to their ability to change color, the evolutionary adaptations of chameleons are pretty bizarre, and some of them remain mysterious even to scientists. Their super-powered tongues, for instance, can dart out so quickly that the movement can barely be seen with the naked eye. But modern high-speed cameras have enabled researchers at the University of South Dakota to observe this appendage at work like never before. The video below, shared over at The Kid Should See This, includes some of that groundbreaking footage, and it's pretty amazing to watch.

Shooting at 3000 frames per second, the camera was able to capture every split-second aspect of the chameleon's tongue strike. Slowed down, the video allows you to see how every component of the process works in harmony: First, muscles in the lizard’s tongue contract like the string of a bow. Then, when that tension is released, the bony base of the tongue shoots forward, pushing the sticky, elastic part toward the chameleon’s prey.

According to Christopher Anderson, one of the scientists who conducted the high-speed camera research, larger chameleons can catapult their tongues forward at distances of one to two times their body length. For smaller chameleons, this distance can reach up to two and a half times their body length. “Small chameleons need to be able to eat more food for their body size than large chameleons,” he tells bioGraphic in the video, “and so by being able to project their tongues proportionately further than these large species, they basically are opening up additional feeding opportunities to themselves that they wouldn’t have if they had a shorter tongue.”

To see one of nature’s greatest hunting tools in action, check out the full video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
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Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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