Meerkats Teaching 19 03 2014
There's convincing evidence for teaching in meerkat societies. Month-old youngsters begin following adult babysitters on foraging explorations to learn the ways of the meerkat world. Image: Robert Clark311, Flickr

Scorpions may be tasty, but catching them without getting stung is so tricky that young meerkats have to go to school to learn the skill. In fact, much of what meerkats (Suricata suricata) eat – including lizards and snakes – is hard to catch and difficult to handle. So in Food Skills 101, adult meerkats teach their young bit by bit.

The school of animal teaching has a very small staff room. Social learning, where naive individuals glean information simply by watching others, is common in a myriad of animals. But teaching is distinct. "A simple definition of teaching is going out of your way to help someone else learn," explains Alex Thornton, a research fellow at the University of Exeter, and the first to document teaching in meerkats. The scientific definition of teaching requires three things: teachers must modify their behaviour only in the presence of a naive pupil, the process must be costly in some way (or the teacher must gain no immediate benefit), and pupils must learn faster than they would without instruction. Beyond humans, convincing evidence for teaching exists in only three species: meerkats, pied babblers and tandem-running ants. But is teaching in the natural world so exclusive because it's really that rare ... or because it's difficult for us humans to observe it in other animals? That’s as yet unclear.

Meerkat tots can’t capture fast-moving prey. Initially suckled by meerkat moms in their protected, underground burrows, one-month-old youngsters begin following adult babysitters on foraging explorations. In their Kalahari kindergarten, meerkat adults kill and immobilise potentially dangerous prey like scorpions, so pups become familiar with handling it. In phase two, teachers up the ante. Adult meerkats capture and remove the stinger, so the live scorpions "are still really feisty and put up a good fight, but there's no longer the danger it's going to sting the pup in the face," explains Thornton. Before pupils graduate to independent foraging, adults catch the prey, but give it to the youngsters fully intact. The young are similarly taught with speedy crickets, lizards, snakes and small mammals. 

Tandem–running ants also teach foraging. Experienced Temnothorax albipennis ants use tandem running – meaning 'follow the leader' – to lead naive ants from the nest to food. University of Bristol biologists Nigel Franks and Tom Richardson (now at the Université de Lausanne) revealed that the pair communicates with one another, the learner tapping on the legs and antennae of its tutor to indicate willingness to follow. Running ahead, the tutor navigates, frequently waiting for the pupil to catch up. The teacher can get to food four times faster when unencumbered by a follower, but teaching generates knowledge later passed on when learner becomes sensei. The ants show that big brains are not essential for teaching.

Pied Babblers 19 03 2014
The calls of adult pied babblers act like 'follow me' signals that help to keep young birds out of trouble. Image: Ian N White, Flickr

In the Kalahari, there are also birds in the classroom. Nichola Raihani and Amanda Ridley described teaching in pied babblers (Turdoides bicolor). Breeding cooperatively like meerkats, both breeders and helpers bring up the kids. Adults make energetically expensive 'purr' calls while feeding the nestlings. Babbler nestlings learn to link purr calls with food delivery (like Pavlov’s bell) allowing later use of the calls as 'follow me' signals to keep offspring out of trouble after fledging.

Teaching was once thought to be uniquely human, an idea that "struck me as a little bit illogical from the outset," says Thornton. Careful study has proved his hunch. But demonstrating teaching in non-humans is difficult "because it requires researchers to follow animals for relatively long periods," says Raihani. Golden lion tamarins are another proposed animal teacher, though some scientists are unconvinced. Teaching may also occur in the tiger, cheetah and domestic cat, but the jury, like the data, is still out. 

The idea that individuals can learn from one another, causing information to spread through groups "is the root of culture, and it has all kinds of evolutionary and ecological implications," says Thornton. It suggests that learning about teaching … can teach us a lot.

Top header image: Steve Shattuck, Flickr