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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Imitating humans? It's simple for meerkats, who can identify each other using their voices

By Daily Mail Reporter

On the television adverts they speak with thick Russian accents. And in the real world, it seems meerkats have an equally distinctive sound – at least as far as their friends are concerned.

According to scientists, meerkats can identify one another by voice alone, matching the way humans recognise familiar tones.

The animals, made famous by the talking meerkats in commercials for insurance price-checking website Comparethemarket.com, may be the only non-primate species to have developed this ability.

Clever cats: Meerkats are the only non-primates with the ability to recognise one other by their voices, say scientists

Researchers recorded a range of meerkat vocal sounds and played them to wild meerkats in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa.

In one scenario, the same meerkat voice could be heard through separate speakers on both sides of the animal at the same time.

The meerkats in the study gave a stronger reaction when they heard the same voice apparently coming from two directions at the same time – suggesting they realised this should not be possible.

In the other, a different meerkat voice was played on each side.

Dr Simon Townsend, of the University of Zurich, said: ‘This is the first experimental demonstration of vocal individual recognition, under natural settings, in a species other than primates.

‘Our results suggest when confronted with an impossible socio-physical scenario – the presence of the same individual on two different sides – meerkats are more vigilant and more likely to look in the direction of the violation than when the presence of two different individuals is simulated.’

While humans and some other primates are able to recognise different individuals from their voices, it is not clear how common this is among other mammals who live in social groups.

But meerkats are known to rely heavily on vocal communication to co-ordinate activities and keep track of changes in their environment. They live in clans of up to 50 and, like humans, are regularly exposed to social challenges including aggression, competition for dominance and co-ordination of co-operative behaviours.



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