Why Did (or Didn’t) the Meerkat Cross the Road?

Dominant female meerkats hang back to let subordinates cross busy, dangerous roads first

Dominant female meerkats are bossy little animals. They fight their way to the head of the pack, slap the other females around—especially when they’re pregnant—and assume a position at the front of the line when the group moves around. When things get hairy, however, dominant females are more than happy to let their subordinantes assume the risk. New research shows that animals lower on the totem pole are forced to cross busy roads first while the leader assesses the danger from safety, Conservation Magazine reports.

In this new study, researchers wanted to know how meerkats in South Africa respond to human-imposed threats, like roads. They observed four groups of animals during 52 different crossings. The dominant female led the group half of the time, but after reaching the road she usually dropped back and allowed another meerkat to cross first. When dominant females were in the lead, they led the group across the road only 41 percent of the time, whereas when subordinates were in the lead from the beginning, they continued across the road 84 percent of the time.

The dominant female is obviously watching her own back, but the authors point out that this behavior also may help the group as a whole. Dominant females, in addition to pushing the smaller and younger girls around, act to hold the group together as leaders and also bear the brunt of reproduction.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Meerkats and Ground Squirrels Live Together, Respond to Threats Differently 
Wild Things: Life as We Know It 

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