An adult meerkat protecting two pups while sitting outside burrow in the Namib Desert

An adult meerkat watches all the pups in its social circle, both its own and others'. Credit: Paul Souders/Getty

Animal behaviour

The furry carnivores that are the ultimate altruists

Meerkats help all those around them, regardless of the strength of familial ties.

Meerkats are helpful to all their group members because they are related to every animal in their social circle, according to a study of the adorably alert desert mammals.

Evolutionary theory predicts that animals will help only their own kin. Over time, such altruism is advantageous, because of the genetic relationship between the helper and the helped: the assistance allows the receiver to have, on average, more offspring than they would otherwise. But for some social animals, it isn’t easy to keep track of who is related to whom.

To explore altruistic behaviour in the species, Chris Duncan at the University of Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues studied 25 years of data on 1,347 meerkats (Suricata suricatta) in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Meerkats babysat and fed one another’s offspring; took turns guarding the group; and dug communal burrows. Analysis showed that, for the most part, these actions were undertaken without regard to how closely related the beneficiary was to the helper.

The researchers suspect that because all members of a meerkat group are closely related, it makes sense for them to be indiscriminately helpful.