Most people don’t have the opportunity to observe prairie dogs hanging out in groups in the wild. But if you did, you’d notice that they are playing an EPIC game- a combination of Marco/ Polo and “the wave” that was so popular at ballparks in the 90s.
Out of nowhere, prairie dogs will hop up on their back legs, stick their little hands up in the air, and yell “wee-oo!” And immediately, their buddies will all begin to answer them with a “wee-oo!” response, starting a wave of this behavior across the group. Seriously, you need to watch the videos of this below- it’s pretty cute.
So… why? It’s not just a fun way to pass the time- it’s also a way to check in on their buddies and make sure that everyone’s doing ok. It’s been described as a “test of their emergency broadcast system,” and as long as the one who called “Marco” gets a lot of “Polo” responses, they chill out. But if their friends fail to respond to the roll call, everyone is more alert for possible danger.
This Marco/Polo game shows that prairie dogs are cognizant of the mental states of individuals in their group- and understanding more about their social behavior is pretty cool!
Well, sometimes research can have unexpected results. Case in point: meerkats. Cute, cuddly, friendly little African mammals that raised Animal Planet’s ratings for 3 years, right? Not so much…
Meerkat groups, or mobs, are run by an alpha male and female, who are the only meerkats “allowed” to breed. So what happens when subordinate females happen to sneak in a little action on the side and deliver their own litters? Alpha mom retaliates by murdering the illegitimate pups and then forcing the grieving subordinate females to either leave the colony or nurse and raise her own pups instead.
While there’s certainly an advantage to the alpha female to ensure that only her pups survive, subordinate females definitely get the raw end of the deal. It seems, though, that the alternative of being forced out of the colony poses such great danger and stress that in order to be allowed to stay, the subordinate females will allow themselves to be enslaved as punishment for their “illegal” roll in the hay.
Behavioral research like this is always important, because it helps us understand animals’ social hierarchies and group dynamics. In captivity, animals don’t always display the same behaviors, and conservation efforts depend on these insights into their natural behaviors in the wild.
Meerkats- I’ll bet you won’t look at them the same way again!