How did Periscope hit meerkats

UZH News

Team play

Marta Manser researches the social structure and communication behavior of wild meerkats. At a research station in the southern Kalahari, young researchers who belong to Manser's group find unique conditions for field studies.

David Werner

Grown together into a kind of extended family: Marta Manser's biology team. Irene Völlmy, Marianne Heberlein, Philip Wadewitz, Valerie Amsler, Christophe Bousquet, Marta Manser and Roman Furrer. (from right to left) (Photo: Frank Brüderli)

Meerkats are born team players. Their social life is well organized like hardly any other mammal species. Marta Manser, Professor of Behavioral Biology, and her group are researching the communication behavior and cognitive performance of these animals in their natural habitat: at a research station set up by the University of Cambridge on a former cattle ranch in northwest South Africa. The station, in which the University of Zurich makes a financial contribution, is isolated in a sparsely populated semi-desert landscape of the southern Kalahari, a three-hour drive from the nearest city.

Big family in the desert

Fifteen to twenty-five master’s students and young researchers can conduct their field studies here at the same time. A research stay usually lasts six months in a row. That means team experience under extreme conditions. You cook together, assist each other with experiments, help with necessary repairs - and over time you grow together into a kind of extended family. When observing wild animals, patience, respect and discretion are essential. "Actually, almost the same characteristics that are important within the research group," states Master's student Valerie Amsler.

Meerkats are born team players. (Image: provided)

When meerkats sense danger, they sound the alarm and disappear into the burrow as quickly as possible. If problems arise in the team of zoologists, a team meeting is called. Difficulties can arise if someone does not adhere to the principles of dealing with animals. Rule number one is not to intervene in the survival struggle of the observed animals - even if they are attacked by enemies such as snakes or birds of prey. This is difficult for some. The meerkats were accustomed to the presence of humans in a lengthy process and let them approach them without letting their natural behavior be influenced.

This coexistence of wild animals and humans, which offers science unique opportunities, is unstable. Anyone who intervenes in a disruptive manner endangers the entire long-term project. Manser gives a lot of responsibility to the students and doctoral students from the group who make their experiments and observations here. Because of her obligations in Zurich, she can only afford to fly to South Africa for a few weeks for a few weeks to train her employees, so they are left to their own devices during their six-month research stay.

Sometimes you also need nerves

When recruiting her international team, Marta Manser pays attention to high scientific motivation, independence, practical skill - and the “chemistry” should also be right. "However, you can never be absolutely sure whether the collaboration will work out later," she says. Anyone who builds teams is therefore also taking risks. Working in research groups can be fruitful and stimulating. But sometimes it also requires iron nerves.

Philip Wadewitz, Christophe Bousquet, Valerie Amsler and Irene Völlmy do meerkat research in South Africa. Other members of the group are busy with other animal species elsewhere: Marianne Heberlein explores the "language" of wolves and dogs.

Roman Furrer, on the other hand, works with zebra mongooses in Uganda. In contrast to the closely related meerkats, the zebra mongoose do not live in strictly hierarchical, but in egalitarian societies. Whether this is related to the more abundant food supply and the less harsh living conditions in tropical Central Africa is one of many open questions that are lively discussed when the members of Marta Manser's group come together again after long stays in the "Hombase" on the Irchel.

David Werner is editor of the unijournal