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Meerkat Matriarchs Become Martyrs for the Mob

Sep 07, 2015 01:51 AM EDT
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It's hard to argue against being thankful for your mother. She brought you into this world, she suffered to do so, she likely raised you, and she likely sacrificed a lot to do that too. Mothers are incredible. However, when it comes to meerkat matriarchs, they may be an even more impressive cut above the rest.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Behavioral Ecology, which details how the dominant matriarchs of meerkat society are practically martyrs for their clan.

Specifically, it appears that meerkat matriarchs are subject to more stress and host more parasites than any other member of their mob. Of course, this wasn't just assumed after looking at one matron.

In a two-year-long study at the Kuruman River Reserve in South Africa's Kalahari Desert, Kendra Smyth, a researcher with Duke University, tested 97 freshly deposited feces samples, surveying the parasite diversity of 83 sexually mature meerkats living in 18 social groups. (Scroll to read on...)

In most mammal 'dictatorships,' the dominant boss usually winds up getting the worst of parasitic diseases. This has previously been seen in male-dominated societies, but this is the first example of the phenomenon among female-run meerkats.

This parasitic 'burden' occurs for two reasons. For one, female meerkats are mating... a lot. In most clans, the dominant meerkat matron will reserve all breeding rights and will wind up mothering almost all of the mob's next generation. What's more, these animals mate year, round. It's then understandable how the sole breeder winds up with everyone's parasitic baggage.

However, a matron's life isn't just all about sex. Aside from overseeing the raising of her pups, a matron meerkat also sets the social standard, often evicting subordinate females before they pose a threat and establishing favorites among the males. She also leads the mob out for foraging, and decides when and where to bed down. (Scroll to read on...)

It can be a stressful life for a matron, and according to Smyth, the boss' immune system may suffer for it.

"Parasites are a proxy for measuring the immune system," she explained in a statement, going on to complain that often a researcher's understanding of how mammalian immune systems work is too black-and-white.

"Most of what we know about the immune system comes from laboratory mice living in unrealistic conditions," she added. They're housed singly in clean cages and they're parasite-free. I'm not convinced that that's how the immune system works when you put them in the natural world."

That's why, in future work, Smyth plans to take an even closer look at these burdened meerkat matrons, sampling blood and looking at hormone levels and other variables in a bid to better understand how everyday stress can affect even the bossiest of mothers.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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