If you think the catfights on "The Bachelor" were nasty, wait till you here about how these meerkats exercise their dominance over their rivals.
Despite being known to raise their young as a commune, meerkats only choose one pair among them to serve as the alpha male and alpha female that would reproduce for the entire mob.
In case the mother meerkat dies, one of the female offspring takes her place and serves as the new partner of the alpha male. However, the transition from one dominant female meerkat to the next can sometimes become very violent.
In a study featured in the journal Nature, scientists at the University of Cambridge described how female meerkats engage in an eating contest to show that they are the dominant ones in their group.
Study co-author Tim Clutton-Brock said these animals can adjust their growth so that they could match the size of their closest rivals.
While previous studies on animal growth are linked to external factors, including population density, temperature and the availability of food, Clutton-Brock and his team's work is the first of its kind to show that some creatures adjust their intake of food, and subsequently their growth rates, to match those of their competition.
The meerkats can also express their dominance over other members of their mob by devouring the offspring of their rivals in order to ensure that their own descendants are the only ones that would survive.
Some may even choose to force their subordinates out of their group and leave them to survive the harsh environment of the desert alone.
To learn more about how meerkats manage their community, Clutton-Brock and his team observed some 300 meerkats from various breeding groups in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa over a 20-year period. They tagged the critters and placed transponders on them so that they could be easily identified.
The researchers then paired the meerkats together based on their sex and age. The smaller members of each pair were fed with only half of a hard-boiled egg two times a day for a few weeks. Meanwhile, the other members were not given any eggs to eat.
Some pairs were purposely not given any egg treats at all so that they could serve as the controls for the study.
After three months, Clutton-Brock and his team examined the growth of the larger meerkats in both groups that were not fed with eggs. They discovered that these critters also increased in size, despite not being given any additional treats, suggesting that they ate more food so that they could match the growth of their littermates who were regularly fed with eggs.
This behavior can also be seen in older female meerkats who assume the alpha status of their mob in place of the dead mother. Even though they may not be as big as the former alpha initially, after they become the new breeder of the group, they would immediately take on extra weight.
The researchers believe that this form of competitive eating and growth spurt can be found in other animals as well, especially species that have strict competition when it comes to breeding opportunities.
Photo: Daniel Ramirez | Flickr