From the team at BBC Wildlife Magazine

Meet the world's most murderous mammal: the meerkat

They may look cute, but the matriarchal meerkat society is deadly.

Two meerkats fighting in a desert setting
Gary Brookshaw / Getty Images
Published: January 25, 2022 at 4:00 pm
Grab your copy of Frozen Planet II when you subscribe to BBC Wildlife Magazine!

If I asked you to name the world’s most murderous mammal, your answer might be the human male, or perhaps a warring alpha chimpanzee, or even a territorial bull elephant seal. The truth is far more feminine – and cute. The meerkat was unmasked in a scientific study as the most homicidal of over 1,000 mammals.

Advertisement

One-in-five will be violently dispatched by another meerkat, likely their own mother, sister or auntie, demonstrating how the female of the species really is more deadly than the male.

Meerkat family of adult with three pups sheltering under here in desert environment
Only the matriarch has the right to reproduce. © Paul Souders/Getty Paul Souders / Getty Images

These small, social mongooses are charismatic and winning. They’re such manic, comic characters, and their cooperative society so enthralling. But looks can be deceiving. Behind the slapstick, meerkat society owes more to Stalin than it does Chaplin.

Infanticide and cannibalism

Meerkats live in family clans of up to 50. Their society is predicated on ruthless reproductive competition between closely related females who, when pregnant, will readily kill and eat each other’s pups. This baby-eating bonanza is kept in check by the omnipotence of a matriarch with a zero-tolerance policy for breeding subordinates. Her goal is to prevent any of her female relatives reproducing during her reign – and rope them into caring for hers instead. As such, she monopolises 80% of the breeding, and will use extortion and murder to achieve this end.

Vacancies for dominance don’t come up often. When a matriarch dies, the top job falls to the eldest and heaviest female in the group. From the moment she inherits her status the new alpha’s size increases, her testosterone levels rise, and her hostility towards other females surges – especially those closest in age and size, namely her sisters and later her daughters. The matriarch will competitively eat to retain her bulky authority and any females that get uncomfortably close to her supreme size will be evicted.

More like this
In the event that another female dares to give birth, the matriarch will kill her pups.

Banishment is basically a death sentence in the Kalahari. It follows a barrage of physical abuse, which may also supress her rival’s reproduction. In the event that another female dares to give birth, the matriarch will kill her pups – often her own grandchildren – and banish the female. If they’re lucky, evictees may be permitted back on one condition: they wet-nurse their murderous mother’s babies.

Please note that external videos may contain ads

Meerkat Mother Exiles Her Own Daughters | BBC Earth

Suckling is a serious drain, but enslaved females have no choice. It is a form of ‘rent’. This explains the curious altruism of inherently self-motivated individuals. Given their relatedness, helping raise their mother’s offspring means they share DNA. And if a subordinate manages to stay, there’s always the chance she’ll rise up and breed herself. It’s a far cry from their family soap opera image, but meerkat society is in fact a ruthless bitch-eat-bitch world.


Advertisement

Main image: Meerkats: not always cute and cuddly. © Gary Brookshaw/Getty

Authors

Author, broadcaster, Nat Geo Explorer and zoologist

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sponsored content