Meerkats are true chatterboxes – but they don’t always expect an answer. Sometimes they just want to say “I’m here,” report researchers at the University of Konstanz and the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Biology. During the so-called “close call,” however, the animals are anxious to start a conversation.

Meerkats live in groups – they work “very, very hard to stay together,” as Vlad Demartsev from the Max Planck Institute says. The animals are also on the move most of the day and make a variety of noises as they walk or run.

The team led by Demartsev and Ariana Strandburg-Peshkin from the University of Konstanz has now decoded the usage of two of these sounds. The short “short notes”, which usually go without an answer, are about informing the whole group – the more chatty “close calls”, on the other hand, are aimed at chatting with a specific group member.

Collars continuously recorded audio data

The team had studied meerkats in several groups at a research center in South Africa. The animals were given collars that continuously recorded audio data, and their respective positions were recorded every second via GPS. The researchers were able to see which animal produced which noise, when and where.

“We saw that with a close call there is a very high probability that a neighboring animal will respond within less than half a second,” explained Demartsev. This pattern doesn’t exist with the short notes: “Everyone calls almost at the same time and there is no structure.” The team reports its results in the journal “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences”.

Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) live in dry regions of southern Africa. Each group contains around 20 animals. A dominant male and a dominant female father around 80 percent of the total offspring, which are then raised together by the group members. The animals live in earthen burrows whose entrances are guarded.