A simple test of vocal individual recognition in wild meerkats

Simon W. Townsend, Colin Allen, Marta B. Manser

Abstract

Individual recognition is thought to be a crucial ability facilitating the evolution of animal societies. Given its central importance, much research has addressed the extent of this capacity across the animal kingdom. Recognition of individuals vocally has received particular attention due, in part, to the insights it provides regarding the cognitive processes that underlie this skill. While much work has focused on vocal individual recognition in primates, there is currently very little data showing comparable skills in non-primate mammals under natural conditions. This may be because non-primate mammal societies do not provide obvious contexts in which vocal individual recognition can be rigorously tested. We addressed this gap in understanding by designing an experimental paradigm to test for individual recognition in meerkats (Suricata suricatta) without having to rely on naturally occurring social contexts. Results suggest that when confronted with a physically impossible scenario—the presence of the same conspecific meerkat in two different places—subjects responded more strongly than during the control, a physically possible setup. We argue that this provides the first clear evidence for vocal individual recognition in wild non-primate mammals and hope that this novel experimental design will allow more systematic cross-species comparisons of individual recognition under natural settings.

  • Received August 24, 2011.
  • Accepted September 19, 2011.
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