All clear? Meerkats attend to contextual information in close calls to coordinate vigilance
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- Townsend, S.W., Zöttl, M. & Manser, M.B. Behav Ecol Sociobiol (2011) 65: 1927. doi:10.1007/s00265-011-1202-6
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Socio-demographic factors, such as group size and their effect on predation vulnerability, have, in addition to intrinsic factors, dominated as explanations when attempting to understand animal vigilance behaviour. It is generally assumed that animals evaluate these external factors visually; however, many socially foraging species adopt a foraging technique that directly compromises the visual system. In these instances, such species may instead rely more on the acoustical medium to assess their relative risk and guide their subsequent anti-predator behaviour. We addressed this question in the socially foraging meerkat (Suricata suricatta). Meerkats forage with their head down, but at the same time frequently produce close calls (‘Foraging’ close calls). Close calls are also produced just after an individual has briefly scanned the surrounding environment for predators (‘Guarding’ close calls). Here, we firstly show that these Guarding and Foraging close call variants are in fact acoustically distinct and secondly subjects are less vigilant (in terms of frequency and time) when exposed to Guarding close call playbacks than when they hear Foraging close calls. We argue that this is the first evidence for socially foraging animals using the information encoded within calls, the main adaptive function of which is unrelated to immediate predator encounters, to coordinate their vigilance behaviour. In addition, these results provide new insights into the potential cognitive mechanisms underlying anti-predator behaviour and suggest meerkats may be capable of signalling to group members the ‘absence’ of predatory threat. If we are to fully understand the complexities underlying the coordination of animal anti-predator behaviour, we encourage future studies to take these additional auditory and cognitive dimensions into account.