7 July 2010
Last updated at 02:08
Meerkats have "traditions" that are passed down through generations, according to scientists. A research team from the University of Cambridge in the UK has studied the charismatic creatures in the southern Kalahari Desert.
Scientists studying the animals have noticed that "some meerkat groups consistently get up really early or really late", explained Alex Thornton, a zoology researcher from the university's Pembroke College, who led this study.
"When you're out in the field," said Dr Thornton, "if you're studying certain groups, you always set your alarm a bit later because they're consistently lazy." The new study revealed that this laziness or liveliness has a "cultural basis".
The team studied populations with overlapping territories. "Male meerkats leave their groups to breed, so there's 'gene flow' between groups," Dr Thornton said. This showed that the behaviour was unlikely to have a genetic basis.
"People have commonly assumed that human behaviour is culturally driven, whereas other species are much more genetically controlled," said Dr Thornton. "But this makes us rethink that picture."
Choice of sleeping burrow did not affect what time the meerkats emerged. "We tend to think of behaviour as adapted to local conditions, but there's no way to predict, in terms of local ecology, what time they'll get up," said Dr Thornton.
The meerkats that emerged later in the morning seemed to mitigate the effects of their "laziness" by spending less time sunning, grooming and playing in the burrow before leaving to forage for food, said the researchers.
When an adult male joined another group, it assimilated to new wake-up habits. Dr Thornton said: "Just as afternoon tea is traditional in England but not in France, different groups of meerkats have different ways of doing things."