The Kalahari Meerkat Project is a long-term study about the unique behavior and a branch of conservational study project about meerkats. Meerkats were once one of the most mis-understood animals and it was decided that the study should be carried out about their unique behavior and sometimes brutal but highly co-operative societies. The project was founded in 1993 by professor Tim Clutton-Brock. Tim Clutton-Brock was a professor who studied wildlife and zoology. He decided to carry out a study about meerkats in their natural habitat of the Kalahari desert in South Africa to give us a detailed understanding about them. The project has thrived over the years through proper establishment. Despite a rocky start through moving through different locations, the project succeeded in achieving its ultimate purpose, the study of meerkats. The project team had to start from scratch of habituating meerkats in order to carry out the study and keep the project on track. The Kalahari Meerkat Project has successfully habituated many groups of meerkats. As of today the project has received many funds and this enabled the study team to carry on their observations of the meerkats.
Kalahari Gemsbok National Park
When Tim and his team decided to carry out their study they first needed to find and establish a suitable location. It was a simple fact that meerkats are animals that live in the Kalahari and therefore it was the obligation of the team to find a suitable national conservation park which would provide a stable study base. Tim and the team heard of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park(which would later on be named the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park). The park lied north-western corner of South Africa on the Botswana-Namibia border and consisted of beds of the Aud and Nossob, dry rivers that used to drain to southern Kalahari, and the dune country that lied between them. The team drove the 600 miles from Pretoria with a university technician, Gus van Dyk. It was August and reasonably cool as the team travelled west through the parched cornland of the Transvaal and into the sandy scrub of the Northern Cape. On the edge of the Kalahari the team reached Kuruman, the main base used by Livingstone, where his wife's parents ran a mission, now a prosperous town. After this, the farmlands gradually gave way to arid scrub with widely spaced dunes.
There was little or no surface water and the landscape was dotted with windmills raising water from aquifers below the Kalahari sand. Three hours out from Kuruman the team came through Van Zyl's Rus, originally the basecamp of an Afrikaans adventurer. There was a grocery store, a gs station and a church, but little more. Turning north along the dry bed of Nossob, the team drove past graizing groups of springbok and wildebeest. The Nossob was one of the main migratory routes for raptors(birds of prey) and tawny eagles,bateleurs and martial eagles. Tim's team finally got to see meerkats. At first it was impossible to get even within a few yards, since the animals were still wild and not willing to accept humans following them. The team carried out some habituation work inorder to get the animals used to human company. It was a difficult task but with time they managed to observe some wild groups of meerkats. Among these was a group named Jackson Five. The group was named in the honor of Tim Jackson, a resident biologist who discovered the group when it only had 5 members. They quickly became accustomed to the presence of the study team and allowed the team to follow them in their 6 square miles(15.5 square kilometer) range. After 18 months passed, the team walked with 11 different groups of meerkats and through time each individual within the family was recognised. Among them were meerkat groups named Sandle and South.The team managed to habituate the meerkats with hard-boiled eggs. With this temptation the animals could even be weighed and therefore regular data was collected. Then disaster struck in 1994 when the summer season was unusually dry throughout most of the study area. The meerkats' food supples dwindled and their condition deteriorated. They ceased to breed and so were unable to replace the number of members killed by predators. As the group shrank, there were not enough individuals to share sentry duty and most were predated. Eventually 7 of the initial 11 groups died out. The park authorities decided that it was time for the team to move on an ordered that they leave the area. Tim's team left Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in 2001.
Kuruman River Reserve
Tim Clutton-Brock and his team then managed to enter a ranch which belonged to a farmer named Hennie Kotze. They burrowed part of the square miles or land to carry out their research study. Although it was a fresh start the project study was slower than at Gemsbok. The habitat consisted of a bare riverbed with isolated camel thorn trees growing along it and flats on the other side gave way to grassy dunes that marched to the horizon. There was a continuous network of meerkat territories, the animals were commonly chased by dogs and persecuted by humans and when they got a glance of humans they would run away and disappear from site, even with just 3 hundred yards away. There was more ground vegetation than in the Gemsbok park and that made it difficult to follow the meerkats and was impossible to do so with vehicle. All the team team could do is to track them to their sleeping burrows. Several weeks after this, the meerkat groups allowed the study team to follow them within ten yards. One of the technicians, Grant McIlrath who was based at the ranch,was perticularly adept at teaching the meerkats to tolerate humans. He developed a range of reassuring calls that help to differentiate the study team from hunters or farmhands who might have dogs with them. The team managed to find a supply of small radio transmitters small enough to put onto a collar worn by an individual of the group. After a member was collared, the team could track the group when it ran away from them and joining it at whichever burrow it went to. With radio transmitters,hard-boiled egg and proper habituation, the project was able to make progress. Before long, Tim's team had habituated one of the first groups, Avatar, which gave rise to Lazuli in 1995, founded by Avatar females Ziziphus and Lazuli. Other groups such as Vivian to the east, Young Ones and Drie Doring to the south. Elveera to the east. Some groups contained one or more animals that continued to be suspicious of humans and never properly habituated.
Some subgroups of animals from the initial groups established new study groups. Lazuli was founded by some Avatar females with wild males, Elveera was started by a splinter of members from Phantom, Young Ones females and Lazuli males founded Whiskers, Frisky was started by some wild males with Young Ones females. Other groups followed through the years and the Kalahari Meerkat Project has followed over 50 different groups of meerkats.
The Gannavlakte farm was a farm ranch located in the east of the Kuruman River Reserve. Tim managed to buy the land in the 2000 and in doing so he extended the study range. Most of the groups habituated did not extend their range to the new areas but there was a group named Balrog that was wild until finally habituated in 2004. Unfortunately the area became infested with tuberculosis disease which easily killed meerkats as well as some of the other wildlife. Balrog became infested with TB and most of the members died out by 2007. Gattaca soon extended their range into the areas along the Gannavlakte farm house and they too died out in 2007. A Gattaca founding group called Commandos had a territory along the farm house and disease hit them too by 2009. After Gattaca died out a group named Geckos took over a portion of the territory which Gattaca previously occupied. Geckos was also lost. New groups have also taken residence or a portion of residence along the areas.
ResearchThe project works with a number of habituated meerkat groups with most individuals allowing observers and field workers to follow them in their days activities and stay within a meter while they are foraging. There are currently 13 followed groups with approximately 290 individuals in the entire population of 9-39 members per group(though numbers can get large commonly). Experiments are facilitated according to the following characteristics:
- Unambigous identification of individuals is ensured based on the visible characteristic dye marks as well as ID transponders. Groups can be tracked and traced by radio-collar transmitters warn around the neck of an individual(usually a dominant meerkat).
- Observers can touch and weigh almost all individuals on regular basis. It is possible to collect samples such as urine,blood and fecal samples of most animals, allowing researchers to obtain detailed behavioral data, conduct controlled experiments and to estimate the costs of co-operation between different individuals.
- Accurate life history records are collected for each individual within the population such as genetic data,estimation of reproductive success,births,deaths,pregnancies and onsets as well as conclusions of lactation,oestrus,changes in dominance status and even short-term absence from a group are regarded as important and significant data collection.
The Kalahari Meerkat Project investigates both ultimate and proximate of co-operative breeding in mammals. Long-term data from habituated wild meerkat groups allow a variety of empirical questions in evolutionary and behavioral ecology to be investigated at both individual and population level. Currently research focuses on the following areas:
- Costs and benefits of co-operative behavior
- Variation in helping investment among individuals
- Conflict over reproduction
- Hormonal regulation co-operative behavior
- Population consequences co-operative breeding
- Communication mechanisms and evolution
- Anti-predation strategies
- Patterns of decision-making in co-operative groups
- Social and ecological knowledge
Project BranchThe Friends Of The Kalahari Meerkat Project is a branch from the main project. The Friends Of The Kalahari Meerkat Project(FKMP) is where people can expand their vknowledge about individual meerkats and favourite groups. The FKMP provides an exclusive site for those people who choose to join the project and in doing so support the study of meerkats. The program was launched on November 23,2007 and is organized as a legal entity. The FKMP society is generally legally independent from the Kalahari Meerkat Project(KMP) though the two organizations are functionally linked. It was deiced to set up the Friends Of The Kalahari Meerkat Project society which would operate this venture. 'Friends' are members who will receive meerkat information in exchange for their membership fee or sponsorship fee. The society also collects their donations,bequests and similar contributions.
Pupose of the FKMP:
- The FKMP society supports the research of meerkats and their ecosystem, and performed at the Kalahari Meerkat Project with funds which are contributed by the FKMP members in the form of membership fees and donations.
- The FKMP society fosters the knowledge about meerkats and specifically about the Kalahari Meerkat Project(KMP) meerkats in people not directly affiliated with the KMP. The FKMP makes information about the meerkats exclusively to members through FKMP website or on other paths.
To be a friend click:[Be A Friend Of FKMP]
Meerkat Population Information:
Most meerkats in the study range are individually identified. It may seem like a huge task of trying to know each of the 290 meerkats in the population but the process of identification is very structured. The project's normally first procedure of identification is code naming. The meerkats are first given codes from birth/first seen and later on are named by the filed worker with the group. The purpose of codes is to differentiate the study population(Van Zyl's Rus population) from other meerkat populations because wild meerkats from outside the study area immigrating into the established observed groups is not uncommon.
CodesCodes are uniquely structured in order to give the accurate details.Example VWF026: V for Van Zyl's Rus population, W for Whiskers meerkat group, F for female individual and 006 means that this individual was the 6th member born/first seen in this group.
Once a pups is born and emerges from the burrow at around 3 weeks old, it is given an individual ID code. As a whole litter emerges, each pup is given a code which they will have for life. At first during the early stages it is not easy to identify the gender of a pup so if the pup's gender is not yet identified it is given a code with the letter P for Pup instead of F or M(example VFP045). If individuals leave their natal group and join other observed groups then they still remain with the same code of the natal/first seen group they were in.
When a litter of pups is born and emerges from the burrow(usually 2-3weeks), before each pup is given an individual code the whole litter is coded. Example VRR007009: V for Van Zyl's Rus population, RR for Rascals meerkat group, 007 for 2007 and 009 for 9th litter, therefore in total it says that this litter was the 9th litter of pups born in the Rascals group in 2007.
Once pups start to forage with the group and have already been ID coded then they can be given names by the field worker attending the group.
Probably the most pleasurable experience of all is naming the meerkats in the group. Individuals are named after people(like Chuck Norris,Eliot,Jammy B,Sammy Jo,Gerald Durwel,Darwin etc), plants(like Ziziphus), books(Mommintroll), galaxies(like Zaphod), straight names(like Flower,Kim,Flo,Ella) or just imagination. The individuals remain with their names throughout their lives and no two meerkats within the same group bare the same name.
Once groups have been established ,followed,observed and with some habituation, they are named. The study team names the groups. Like individual names the groups are named after: books(like Moomins,Avatar), movies(like Avatar), Expressions(like Hoppla,Frisky), names like Vivian,Whiskers,Rascals and etc. or imagination. Each group is given a name abbreviation, example Whiskers is W, Vivian is V while others have double letter initial Rascals is RR, Zappa is ZZ, Jabberwocky is JJ, while others have two letters corresponding with the group name example Hoppla is HP, Nutters is NT, Sequoia is SQ, Kung Fu is KU and etc.
Meerkat Group Establishment History At The Kuruman River Reserve
1999: The team tracks 5 new groups named Frisky started by Young Ones females, Nemesis started by Elveera females, Sirius started by Lazuli females with males from Young Ones, Umbongo started by Young Ones females. The 5th group was called Jabberwocky started by females from Frisky. within the same year Sirius and Jabberwocky are lost. X-iles group is lost.
2001: The team tracks 6 new groups; Gattaca is founded by Whiskers females, Moomins is founded by Lazuli females, Hobgoblin by a Whiskers splinter, Tottenham by Lazuli females, Elveera females founded Zappa and a semi-wild group named Balrog is followed.
2002: The team tracks 3 new groups: Asphodel is founded by Whiskers females, Xhosa is founded by Lazuli females and wild males and Pharside is founded by ten Frisky males. Within the same year Pharside is lost. Hobgoblin,Tottenham and Asphodel are lost.
2003: Xhosa is lost.
2007: The team tracks 9 new groups: four wild groups named Polaris,Hoax, Java and Nutters groups are followed. Aztecs and Baobab are founded by Whiskers females and Geckos and Kung Fu were founded by Commandos females. Six groups named Gattaca,Balrog,Vivian,Hoax,Java and Starsky are lost.
2008: The team tracks 6 new groups: PK is founded by Elveera female, Van Helsing and Toyota are founded by Whiskers females, JaXX is founded by Lazuli females and Hoppla is founded by Nutters females with Lazuli males. Sequoia is founded. PK,Nutters and Zappa are lost.
Current Followed Meerkat Groups At The Kuruman River Rserve
- Drie Doring
- Kung Fu
- Van Helsing
- Zulus( not fully habituated until further notice)
Lost Meerkat Groups At The Kuruman River Riserve
- Mixed Pickle(1996)
- Young Ones(1995-2008)