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Spatial structure of foraging meerkat groups is affected by both social and ecological factors

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Group-living animals need to trade off the benefits and the costs of close proximity to conspecifics. Benefits can be increased, and costs reduced by preferentially choosing specific locations within a group best adjusted to an individual’s needs or by associating with specific group members and/or avoiding others. We investigated the spatial structure of meerkat (Suricata suricatta) groups and whether it was shaped by social factors such as affiliation or aggression among group members, predation risk, foraging success, or a mix of these different factors. Using social network analyses, based on spatial networks, we found associations between the dominant pair, among males and among same aged individuals, and dis-assortment by sex only in one to two of the six groups. In addition, the structure of meerkat groups was highly variable, as individual strength within the calculated networks was not repeatable over time. Meerkats seemed to adjust their location to their physical environment, as dominant individuals were located further toward the front of the group, where foraging success is likely higher and young individuals located further toward the back of the group, where they can benefit most from the vigilance effort of their conspecifics. We conclude that meerkat groups display a dynamic spatial structure depending on both the current social and physical environmental.


Group-living animals can achieve greater benefits from close association with conspecifics by choosing specific locations within a group or associating with specific group members and/or avoiding others. A considerable body of work has examined how differences in predation risk or foraging success affect the relative location of individuals within a group. Several studies investigated the association between individuals, in order to draw conclusions on the social structure. However, it is important to disentangle the impact of all of these different aspects on the spatial structure of a group. Here, we provide evidence that both the social and physical environment is important for the spatial assortment of meerkats, a social mongoose foraging in cohesive groups.

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We thank Tim Clutton-Brock and the Kalahari Research Trust for permission to work at the Kuruman River Reserve, and the neighbouring farmers to use their land. We also thank Tim Clutton-Brock, and Dave Gaynor for the organisation of the field site and their input on the field work, and the managers and volunteers of the Kalahari Meerkat Project (KMP) for maintaining the habituation and basic data collection on the meerkats. Furthermore, we thank Bruce Boatman, Denise Camenisch, and Pauline Toni for their assistance with focal recordings, Bart Kranstauber and Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin, for helpful discussions and suggestions for the analysis and Tim Clutton-Brock, Damien Farine, Matthew Silk, and two anonymous reviewers for very helpful comments. This paper has relied on records of individual identities and/or life histories maintained by the KMP, which has been supported by the European Research Council (Grant No 294494 to T.H. Clutton-Brock since 1/7/2012), the University of Zurich and the Mammal Research Institute at the University of Pretoria. We thank the Northern Cape Department of Environment and Nature Conservation for permission to conduct the research.


This study was funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (Grant No PDFMP3_141768 to MBM).

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GECG and MBM collected the data with the help of three field assistants and GECG analysed the data. The article was written by both GECG and MBM. Both authors gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Gabriella E. C. Gall.

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Ethical approval

All data collection adhered to ASAB guidelines. All research was conducted under the permission of the ethical committee of Pretoria University (EC031-13) and the Northern Cape Conservation Service, South Africa (Permit number: FAUNA 192/2014).

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Communicated by D. P. Croft

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Gall, G.E.C., Manser, M.B. Spatial structure of foraging meerkat groups is affected by both social and ecological factors. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72, 77 (2018).

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