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Herding 'kats

Written by Emily Grout

This summer, Vlad, Ari, and Lily from the CCAS team embarked on their fieldwork mission at the Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa, run by the Universities of Zurich and Cambridge, to collar not one, but two full groups of meerkats with GPS and audio recorders.

Meerkats – or in German, 'Erdmännchen' (little earth men), are anything but ordinary. They're cooperatively breeding social mammals, known for their intricate lives in the arid Kalahari landscape. Every day, these meerkats are closely observed by a dedicated team of researchers as part of a long-term study ( who are interested in topics ranging from cooperative breeding, group coordination and movement, physiology and genetics, to population dynamics including climate change effects. The focus of our own team's curiosity lies in unravelling the role of vocal communication in their collective movements. Yet, discovering these secrets demands simultaneous tracking of entire meerkat groups. Alas, while we're still waiting for silent drones with extraordinary battery life to record every nuance of meerkat life from the skies (kudos to the genius who invents that technology), we have our trusty GPS/audio collars to bridge the gap, a method originally developed by Christophe Bousquet, Gabriella Gall, and Marta Manser at University of Zurich some years ago.

Over the past several years our team has collected group-wide collaring data on 7 social groups, across 4 previous field seasons. The meerkats at the Kalahari Meerkat Project have been habituated to human presence and even gentle handling over the course of many years. So, amazingly, we are able to deploy collars (and later remove them) using a magnetic clasp, without needing to capture or restrain the meerkats. This is best done while the meerkats are relaxed and sunning in the morning (i.e. in a bit of a pre-coffee morning stupor), or by offering them a water bottle to drink from while fitting a collar around their neck. It’s not as easy as it might sound though – you have to wait for the right moment! Sometimes one or two members of the group just aren’t into it, so for these uncooperative ‘kats, we resort to getting data the old-fashioned way – by following them around with a boom mic (with one techie tweak – an attached GPS tag).

Ari waiting patiently for the right moment to deploy a GPS/audio collar on one of the remaining Brussel Sprouts holdouts. (Photo by Vlad Demartsev)

This year’s collaring extravaganza kicked off with Lily and Vlad leading the way, focusing their efforts on the Brussel Sprouts meerkat group. Though this group might be considered relatively small in numbers, they more than compensated with an abundance of drama. Their social dynamics were anything but uneventful. The group had recently undergone a significant shift in power, as the former dominant male, James, was dethroned by the new alpha male, Gurke (named by Ari as a pup back in 2019 – she’s so proud!). This transformation left James relegated to the fringes of the group, resulting in a summer of skittish behaviour.

However, luck had turned on the collaring day when the scorching heat played an unexpected role. James, in a rare moment of distraction, was captivated by a water bottle, providing Lily and Vlad with the golden opportunity to secure him with a stylish new collar. Despite successfully collaring every member of the Brussel Sprouts group, a twist of fate came in the form of technical malfunctions that led to many of the batteries on the collars failing within just a few days of recording. So frustrating!

Lily delicately collaring one of the meerkats with the help of the trusty water bottle.

After the technical failures were resolved, Vlad and Lily set about collaring a new group called Side Quest. This group were a little bigger than Brussel Sprouts, and very habituated which made the collaring task much easier. This group were living on a neighbouring farm and required some sophisticated fence climbing to reach them.

Each meerkat group has one individual wearing a VHF collar so the field team can locate them using an antenna attached to a radio. Here is Lily taking advantage of the fence to better locate Brussel Sprouts group.

The collar quest of Side Quest was a success! All but one individual recorded audio and GPS data simultaneously for 5 days. With this victory, Lily returned triumphantly to Zurich, and Vlad and Ari went on a mission to recollar the Brussel Sprouts group. Unfortunately, not all individuals were collared this second time round, so there was less data coverage of the full group, but excitingly the collars recorded an intergroup interaction (also known as an IGI in the meerkat world) with the Zulus group. During the IGI, most of the Brussel Sprouts clan ran away from Zulus, but one of the Brussel Sprouts males stayed behind and got very friendly with a Zulus male and the two were seen mounting one another. Perhaps it was confusion, or perhaps they were star-crossed lovers, we’ll never know. It’s common to observe courtship during IGIs, as this is a time of high excitement and gives an opportunity to mate with unrelated individuals. James wasn’t seen for the whole IGI, as he was unsurprisingly cheesed off with his groupmates at the time.

Meerkats play fighting. (Photo by Vlad Demartsev)

In addition to the full group collaring sessions, the team also undertook a series of play-back experiments with four distinct meerkat groups: Brussel Sprouts, Gold Diggers, Side Quest, and Zulus. Their objective was to gain insight into how meerkats respond to recruitment calls—a vital form of communication within their communities.

Recruitment calls are the meerkats’ way of signalling to their group members to react to potentially perilous situations, like the presence of a snake or the unwelcome presence of a neighbouring meerkat group’s excrement (which, believe it or not, can be quite frightening). The team’s curiosity centred on whether meerkats respond to these calls in unison or if they wait for a leader to initiate the response before deciding to follow suit. To investigate this, they examined responses to recruitment call playbacks (sometimes with or without neighbouring group’s excrement) during full group collaring or by meticulously tracking the movements of three to four individuals within an uncollared group, to understand their intricate and finely-tuned response patterns.

Vlad in the midst of a “focal follow” on one of the individuals in the Brussel Sprouts group. For meerkats who can’t have a GPS/audio collar (either because they are already wearing a radio collar that allows us to find the group, or because they just aren’t cooperating), we instead follow them with a boom mic and attached GPS tag, making an announcement into a headset mic every time they call or change behaviour. This lets us collect the same type of data for uncollared meerkats as we have for those with collars, increasing our coverage of the entire group. Because the collars run continuously for 3 hours each day, so do our focal follows – with no breaks! (Photo by Lily Johnson-Ulrich)

Overhead view of the playback experiment with Lily and Vlad closely monitoring the group. The image of the speaker is where it the recruitment calls are being broadcast. In this trail, the meerkats collectively mob the wrong shrub before running away.

For those who love fieldwork, it is well known that food is one of the highlights of the day. This fieldwork was no exception. Vlad was famed as one of the greatest tahini salad makers and has generously shared his recipe with us. Readers should note that the only actually essential ingredient in the recipe is tahini - the rest can be adapted based on currently available ingredients (in field settings we recommend eating the most perishable items first).

You will need:

For the dressing:

· Tahini – slowly add cold water and mix vigorously until smooth and light coloured

· Lemon juice – 1 fresh lemon

· Olive oil

· Honey

· Soy Sauce

· Salt & Pepper

· Cayenne pepper

· Magic Mixed Herbs

For the salad:

· Tomato

· Cucumber (or Gurke if you’re German – not the meerkat)

· Bell Pepper

· Half an onion

· Champignons

· Cherry Tomatoes

· Green Leaves

· Half a carrot – grated

· Half a tin of chickpeas or sweet corn

· Apple (however this was controversial)

· Bacon (major contribution made by Lily)

* chop all ingredients into small cubes. Yes, even the lettuce!!!

The field team not only crafted an exquisite salad but also took charge of cooking for the entire team on two weekends. With approximately 30 hungry field workers to feed at the project, Lily orchestrated a delicious mac and cheese feast which went down like a treat. And later in the field season Ari prepared a chilli with a twist by adding cocoa powder to enhance the flavours.

Well-fed and well-rested, the three meerkateers are now back in the office with an abundance of new data. It’ll be enough to keep them busy over the cold and dreary winter months in Konstanz / Zurich - until it’s time for the next field season.

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