Prof. Marta Manser was interviewed by the FKMP, after the arrival of the four founding meerkats. Find out what’s behind the enclosure!
FKMP: Marta, thank you for the opportunity to do this interview, just after the four Zurich meerkats arrived – you must be busy with the meerkats and the new enclosure! The meerkats seem to like their new surroundings… What was the biggest surprise to you, so far?
MM: Certainly that the female approached the males as soon as the door between their compartments was opened. She didn’t care about sniffing the larger enclosure, nor did she look back – she just went to the males. It took less than a minute until she and ZIM004 mated… She was a bit tense in the beginning, but soon relaxed – one of the movie crews present even called it romance! You hope for such smooth first encounters, but they’re far from certain!
FKMP: The meerkats are all of similar age, and come from two small European zoos. What made you select them as the founders of the Irchel group?
MM: We were looking for individuals in fertile age that hadn’t bred before and are not related. The males are of different ages but have the same parents, yet they are not related to the female – they may even be of different races. Furthermore, they come from reputable sources – we wanted a clean history.
FKMP: Was it easy to get the four?
MM: Yes and no. The meerkats’ social structure leads to problems in captivity, like eviction and bullying of subordinates – so the target animals have to be removed. Zoos with successful, fertile groups, like Cologne or Mulhouse, occasionally have surplus animals for that reason. Jersey on the other hand wanted to reduce their group size. So there are meerkats available if you can wait, and have the proper permits. But we had to wait for a few months after completion of the enclosure before we got our meerkats.
FKMP: And why one female but three males? Why not the same number each?
MM: Having one female means less stress with evictions while the group is building up. Having three males means that there are helpers around when the first pups are born. Experience in other zoos – but also in the Kalahari – shows that this increases the chances that the group establishes successfully.
FKMP: This brings me to another subject: You have been studying meerkats for the past 17 years, in a wild population in the Kalahari in South Africa. What was the reason that you, and the university, constructed this enclosure?
MM: There were two main reasons: Research and Education. On one hand we expect to be able to do studies about specific behaviour in the fields of communication, cognition and cooperation, under controlled conditions. On the other hand, having meerkats so close will allow our students to work with them, but also gain experience with setting up their own scientific studies – something that is only feasible for very few students if they have to fly down to the Kalahari.
FKMP: Let’s focus on research first. Which scientific questions do you wish to answer with the help of the Irchel meerkats?
MM: There are no specific research questions yet – the group first needs to settle down, and grow, and only then will we see what can be done. For the coming 6 to 12 months, we expect to watch and listen – to get to know them, as the fundament to future experiments. We plan to observe them a lot to learn more about their individual behaviours. We did work in the past on comparisons of zoo meerkats with our wild meerkats in the Kalahari, and we would like to see how our Irchel group fits in. In addition to that, we probably will do sound recordings of their individual calls, as this will form the basis of future playback experiments. Also hormonal analyses are possible, using fecal samples we collect from each individual, that will allow us to compare the Irchel meerkats with our work done in the Kalahari; this will combine behaviour and physiological information, but also help us monitor their health. All taken together, we will spend the next year or so rather with learning about our meerkats than with specific projects.
FKMP: So it seems it will take some time until the group is “fully operational”; what types of data can you collect until then?
MM: We’ve already started with collecting Life History data, and weight data to monitor their health and check whether our feeding regime is okay. Ad lib data will follow, to observe their social interactions. We probably can’t watch them the entire time, even if cameras do – yet we will certainly observe them for longer periods if anything special happens. We can also do hormonal analyses, since hormonal tests on fecal samples are entirely non-intrusive. We do plan to weigh them on a regular basis, for health monitoring reasons, but a full weights regime as in the Kalahari will only be established once the experiments start.
FKMP: So do you plan to change to other methods, once the experimental phase starts?
MM: We have a whole set of experimental procedures established with the Kalahari meerkats. I imagine that most procedures can be used or adapted here. Observation, sound experiments and hormonal analysis will certainly form the major part of the experimental methods; but call recordings will be complemented with playback or presentation experiments, or fecal analyses may be combined with other hormonal analyses. We hope to observe physiology changes in response to stress, e.g. during an eviction.
Our experiments and methods will first have to be approved by the relevant animal welfare authority. Right now we have all required permits to keep meerkats, but not to do experiments with them – we will apply for them once the learning phase comes to its end.
FKMP: Once you start with experiments, how will research with your Zurich meerkats complement your research in the Kalahari?
MM: A local group in a local enclosure helps with two things, mainly. Firstly, it allows to do experiments in a small environment with controlled conditions in a small, but closely monitored population; our access to the meerkats and the possibility to work with them spans the daylight hours. The population in the Kalahari is much larger – which is important for statistical relevance of scientific results – yet no group is monitored for more than 25% of the time. So research in the Kalahari will certainly remain important.
As a second plus I see the fact that it allows our master students to have the opportunity for real experiments with real meerkats, without the need for a 24-hours expensive journey to the Kalahari. The advantage for teaching about behaviour and meerkats, but also about research techniques, was a major driver behind this enclosure. We want to integrate our students as far as possible, not least to educate them in planning and conducting scientific experiments. Again, we’ll certainly continue to have master students in the Kalahari, but it can well be that they’ll be more experienced and better skilled due to their previous work here.
FKMP: Okay, to the teaching aspects. What would be a typical study a master student does with the Irchel meerkats?
MM: Let’s take the first study as an example. One of the students wants to “fine-tune” the meerkats’ diet. Right now we feed them what they are used to from the zoos they came from. This is fruit for breakfast, insects for lunch and mice, day-old chicks or hard-boiled egg for dinner. My guess is that they only eat fruit because they’re hungry after the night, but they don’t really like it – but do they need the nutrients? Live mealworms and crickets are more to their taste, and also the dinner goes down well. But will they remain in shape, with such rich food – at least compared to the Kalahari meerkats? Then there are practical aspects, like where to get the food from. We’d also like to keep the meerkats busy, so the question is how to present the food, that they have to search or dig for it. All taken together, this study requires good planning, considerate work, and a keen eye for the subtleties of meerkat behaviour and wellbeing – a challenging study indeed!
FKMP: Let’s look at other practical aspects. Will the meerkats interact with their keepers?
MM: We definitely don’t want to make pets out of our Irchel group, but we want to bring them to the same level of habituation as our Kalahari meerkats. We’d like to walk with them, bring a microphone or other device next to them without it bothering them. We hope to get them used to the scales to weigh them, apply dye marks, read their ID chips, and – maybe – lift them up at the base of their tails, in case we need to handle them. But this will be it – we don’t want to interact further.
FKMP: Will the group breed freely? What will be done if the female does not accept the males?
MM: Well, the latter won’t turn into a problem, I hope – so far the meerkats seem to enjoy each others’ company. We also hope that they breed freely, at least until the group reaches the target size of about 15 to 18 meerkats. After that it really depends on how often they have pups. They can breed freely if we find good places for the meerkats we can’t keep. If not we will have to look at contraception; there are reliable – and reversible – methods available…
FKMP: Will there be human intervention in dominance squabbles? Health problems?
MM: We would certainly call a vet in the event of injuries or illnesses that are related to human causes – whatever this could be. Interventions for other, natural, causes are to be discussed. Meerkat specific behaviour, like dominance fights, won’t be a reason for intervention – with one exception: if one individual is bullied by the group, like a subordinate female that becomes the target of aggression once the dominant female is pregnant. That is a common problem with captive meerkats, and the reason zoos usually have to give subordinate females away. Our enclosure’s layout allows us to separate her from the group, in a smaller compound where she can see and smell the group, but not be attacked by them – and let her return once the dominant female has given birth, as our Kalahari meerkats do. There is not much experience with this, in other zoos.
FKMP: Let’s come to the enclosure itsself – it looks impressive indeed, compared to some zoo enclosures. How long did the planning and construction phase last?
MM: First informal discussions with the university were at the end of 2007; we got the Go in April 2008. An architect was engaged mid 2008. We were really lucky with him – he took this challenge to build a meerkat enclosure really serious. He consulted the animal welfare regulations, and talked to various zoos to gain their experience, in addition to the inputs from observing the wild population he got from us. Construction started in March 2010, and the final enclosure was approved in October 2010, by the animal welfare authority. Only the burrows were built later, in November. And since then we’ve been ready for the meerkats to arrive.
FKMP: The technical details of the enclosure are described on the website. But you mentioned regulatory aspects regarding animal welfare. What’s behind this?
MM: What really surprised me was the fact that the enclosure’s size allows us to keep 30 mongooses. Almost any mongooses. So regulations don’t care much whether the species is solitary or sociable. We anyway don’t plan to go beyond 15 to 18 meerkats; it would even be feasible to introduce another mongoose species, in additon to them. But I can’t imagine what would happen if we had 10 solitary slender mongooses in here! Nevertheless, I am glad that such regulations exist, and that enclosures are controlled, here in Switzerland.
FKMP: Coming to an end of our interview, what is the event you’re looking forward to the most, in the coming months?
MM: I’m curious about a few things, like how babysitting is handled, or whether it works to return an evicted female to the group. I’m also interested in the effect our new enclosure has on our teaching.
But above all, I’m looking forward to the first litter…
FKMP: We cross our fingers that there will be pups around end of April!!! Thank you very much, Marta, for this interview.