Mama Meerkats More Susceptible to Parasites, Study Finds

posted: 08/27/15
by: Discovery.com Staff
Suricate or meerkat (Suricata suricatta) family

It's tough out there for a meerkat matriarch. Charged with caring for the entire family, mama meerkat's life is a constant, stressful fight to keep her children in line and maintain order in her tribe. As it turns out, that nearly insurmountable challenge takes a toll on her health.

Research from Duke University reveals that matriarchal female meerkats are more susceptible to parasite infection than meerkats in other social roles throughout the tribe. Fecal analysis of more than 80 animals in South Africa revealed the frequent presence of six different intestinal worms in matriarch's stool samples.

Study lead author and Duke graduate student Kendra Smyth thinks that the added stress of the matriarch's chaotic lifestyle could compromise her body's ability to fight parasites and infection.

"Parasites are a proxy for measuring the immune system," she explains in a news release. "For any kind of species living in groups, like humans, it's important to understand the dynamics of the spread of disease and which individuals might be susceptible," she said.

Smyth also notes that the female meerkat's widespread social interactions with other members of her tribe could also leave her more vulnerable to communicable diseases and parasites.

The study, Patterns of parasitism in the cooperatively breeding meerkat: a cost of dominance for females, is published in the journal Behavioral Ecology.

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