The photogenic Meerkat has been the star of many TV nature shows and films, but behind the cute face lies a more complex and mixed reality. These south African mongooses typically live in groups of about 30 individuals and are ruled by one dominant female. Only she may breed, with the alpha male, and other Meerkats do so at their peril. They may be driven out of the group to die alone and any young may be killed.
In each group the members carry out specific duties. Some act as sentries for the rest of the group as its members forage for food. They take it in turns to watch for predators from a vantage point. Meerkats have a language of different alarm calls to indicate what sort of predator has appeared. If the alarm call for an eagle is given the group will scuttle away to their burrows. If a large snake is the danger, they take to the trees.
As well as sentries, other Meerkats position themselves at the edge of their foraging area as a trip wire to warn of danger. If an outsider appears it will be driven off. If two groups meet where their territories join, they will threaten each other. Meerkats are very territorial animals. If one group invades another's territory, they will fight and serious wounds or even deaths may result.
Some Meerkats act as babysitters for the young in the underground nursery so the dominant female can forage or sunbathe. Other Meerkats teach older juveniles to dig for food and skills such as how to de-sting a scorpion so it is ready to eat.
Meerkats also spend time socializing and grooming. They have to 'know their place' in the group and they have to perform their duties efficiently. To survive and thrive they need to cooperate.