Oct 12

Scientists have discovered that meerkats are able to recognise the voices of other members of their social group.

Meerkat image

Meerkat family group

This discovery is the first time that voice recognition has been observed in a non-primate species. Scientists believe that the phenomena might be more widespread in the animal kingdom than previously thought, though the theory is difficult to test in wild animals.

Lead researcher on the project, Dr Simon Townsend, explained, “There’s lots of evidence of vocal recognition in primates, you can really test whether they respond to individual vocal recognition. But this is harder to test in other non-primates, because relationships between individual animals are not as clear.

Meerkat image

Young meerkat

Meerkat expectations?

To find out whether meerkats could recognise another individual by the sound of its voice, scientists used a clever experiment that challenged the animal’s ‘expectations’.

Meerkats use a variety of calls, including a ‘close call’ which they make continually while foraging. This call is believed to keep the group together, and also advertises the presence of an individual to others. Scientists recorded these calls and played them back to the foraging meerkats.

Researchers placed speakers on either side of a foraging meerkat, and first played the call of a member of its social group from one speaker, followed by a call from a different member of the group on the opposite speaker. They then presented the meerkats with a puzzle by playing a recording of the same meerkat, first on one side, and then immediately on the other.

The meerkats presented with this conundrum stopped foraging and were more vigilant, looking in the direction of the speaker. Scientists believe hearing the recording of the same meerkat violates the individuals ‘expectation’ that the same meerkat can’t be in two places at one time, and, according to the researchers, thus proves that meerkats can recognise individual voices.

Meerkat image

Meerkat keeping watch

The research has shown that vocal recognition might be quite widespread in the animal world, and scientists believe that the experiment could be used to investigate the phenomena in a range of species.

Read more on the BBC news story – Meerkats recognise each others’ voices.

View images and videos of the meerkat on ARKive.

Becky Moran, ARKive Species Text Author