Mongooses & Snakes: Combat Training

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Summary: As children we accept stories of history, science, and politics that are doled out to us as simple little lessons. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a children's story about a mongoose, which the National Endowment for the Arts uses to teach about anthropomorphism and the differences between "truth" and "fiction". Yet, despite our childhood training, many grown adults are smitten with syrupy accounts of reality -- simplifications, whitewashes or even outright lies. What about accounts of science? What happens in real life when another mongoose species, the meerkat, meets a puff adder? Does National Geographic's account ring true? Or does research that uses the result to bolster theories about learning in meerkats seem more plausible?

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi: Truth or Fiction?

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is Rudyard Kipling's mongoose in The Jungle Book famous for saving a human family in India from predatory snakes. First the young mongoose takes on a venomous krait ("Karait") when the snake threatens the young boy Teddy: "Rikki-tikki's eyes grew red again, and danced up to Karait with the peculiar rocking, swaying motion that he had inherited from his family". Next the mongoose engages in an epic fight with a family of cobras. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi takes on "Nagaina", of "Nag" and "Nagaina", when the snakes attempt to kill off the humans in order to inhabit their home and raise their own expanding brood:

"Rikki-tikki was bounding all round Nagaina, keeping just out of reach of her stroke, his little eyes like hot coals. Nagaina gathered herself together and flung out at him. Rikki-tikki jumped up and backward. Again and again and again she struck, and each time her head came with a whack on the matting of the veranda and she gathered herself together like a watch spring. Then Rikki-tikki danced in a circle to get behind her..."

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi may be agile, however the animal is naive at first, taking cavalier risks like following after Nagaina when she plunges down into a rat hole during battle. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi reckons with his youthful inexperience:

"...just under him whizzed by the head of Nagaina, Nag's wicked wife. She had crept up behind him as he was talking, to make an end of him. He heard her savage hiss as the stroke missed. He came down almost across her back, and if he had been an old mongoose he would have known that then was the time to break her back with one bite."

Rikki-tikki-tavi is fiction of course. Mongooses and snakes don't converse or plot to kill each other. But although it may be fiction, the story holds many lessons, some of which the National Endowment of The Arts (NEA) -- funded by the U.S. government -- sees fit to teach. The NEA created a learning website for teachers that uses the tale of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi for lesson plan called "'Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi": Mixing Fact and Fiction'". The site cues teachers about appropriate background information to impart to the students. "You may also wish to tell your students that, like the United States of America, India is no longer a British colony....". Of course one could also say, "like Britain once, the United States of America sometimes attempts at empire-building", but no, that account of history wouldn't win favor.

The NEA links to maps, and suggests lesson questions and answers. Lesson number 3, "Fact, Fiction, and Personification", notes that it's a "fact", that Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, like many mongooses:

"....[l]ives in India, has a pink nose and eyes, has a fluffy tail, hunts snakes, lives in a burrow, eats meat, has a rocking gait when about to attack, makes a ticking sound when aggressive."

But NEA notes that it's "fiction", that Rikki-Tikki-Tavi or mongooses, "have conversations like humans do". And when Kipling has the female cobra Nagaina say to resident bird and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi ally, Darze:

'"You warned Rikki-tikki when I would have killed him. Indeed and truly, you've chosen a bad place to be lame in." And she moved toward Darzee's wife, slipping along over the dust."'

The NEA website says that students should be taught:

"Animals do not try to have their revenge on other animals; vengeance is a human invention. A snake would hunt a bird for food, but it would not seek to kill the bird for revenge. To assess students' understanding, you may wish to have your students find one or more other passages in which an animal thinks or acts like a human being."

If only it were so simple. Indeed, snakes don't seek revenge, "a human invention", nor do mongooses express scorn or pride, as Kipling's hero does. But scientists are finding that some animal behaviors, like learning and teaching young, do look like human behaviors.

Oh Meerkat, You're No Rikki-Tikki Tavi

Mongooses, of the taxonomic family Herpestidae. There are 35 various mongoose species that can differ in appearance and behavior. Meerkats, Suricata suricattais, are a smaller mongoose, with a thin tail that they use for balance. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, by comparison, "...could fluff up his tail till it looked like a bottle brush, and his war cry as he scuttled through the long grass was: "Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk".

Rikki-Tikki-Tavi washed up on his hosts' doorstep after a storm and took it upon himself to protect his host's home single-handedly. Meerkats, by comparison are always described as "gregarious", spending much of their time in social groups where they together face down foes and handle prey, and perhaps assess dangers. Meerkat groups of several families band together to form "mobs". The word conjures images of roving gangs of thugs with dubious purposes, sneers and leather jackets, but meerkat mobs on the lookout for predators stand-up in sentinel position looking more like a gaggle of girls or chattering tweens. They're so fetching that they undoubtedly need to gang up together to get any traction whatsoever on the rough and tumble Kalahari.

The meerkat social structure and the ease with which they can be habituated to humans makes them attractive research subjects, and more science could help us all understand just what meerkats do and don't and can and can't do. However in the course of studying meerkats, scientists have captured hours and hours and hours of meerkat interactions on film. What to do with that? Enterprising producers make television shows, one of which is the well-known Meerkat Manor on Animal Kingdom.

The show offers audiences a lot of anthropomorphism, or "personification" as NEA would have it, as it follows the life and times of a mob of meerkats centering around a family called "The Whiskers". Now in its third season, the show keeps viewers as engaged as any soap-opera. This is a win-win situation, since researchers at the Cambridge University Kalahari Meerkat Project might well benefit from having their hundreds of hours of observation tapes turned into a hit television series -- and audiences are smitten. But does the creation of soap operas starring characters like "The Whiskers" family encourage further anthropomorphism of the carnivores?

Many people fell for a recent hoax reported by the Telegraph, when wardens at the Longleat Safari Park released photos that were described as meerkats taking family snapshots. People thought it was so cute, and apparently believed that a meerkat would be motivated to take portraits of its mob. The scam was only exposed once an Amateur Photographer's magazine threw doubts on the tale, forcing folks to face the fact that it's "fiction" that meerkats take snapshots of their families with Canon cameras.

Meerkat Mobbing, A Purpose Driven Life

Animal learning has always fascinated scientists, and on a smaller scale anyone can play at it. For instance, when dogs hear the mailbox clatter open on the front porch, do they bark so ferociously because they forgot the lesson from the day before -- that the mailman is not a threat? Or does the dog think its barking makes the mailman going away, which therefore reinforces the ritualized barking frenzy in its little dog brain? Or is it something entirely different? Does one's human brain limit ones ability to interpret a dog's behavior? I don't know. But how do animals learn? Cooperate? Evolve to learn? These are all interesting questions.

Last year Science (summary) published research by Alex Thornton and Katherine McAuliffe, who observed that meerkats were learning survival skills from their older kin. Adult meerkats would respond to unique age dependent calls of meerkats by preparing scorpions for the young meerkats according to the youngster's developmental ability to deal with the scorpion and its poisonous parts. The older meerkat would then present the age-appropriate, dead/non-poisonous, half-dead or live-ish scorpions to the young meerkats. The research is briefly described in this blurb from NPR.

Meerkats don't engage in the single-handed acrobatic mortal duels that made Rikki-Tikki-Tavi famous, and they seek out prey smaller than cobras -- insects or lizards or venomous scorpions perhaps. But that doesn't mean that the meerkats don't have run-ins with large snakes. The Meerkat Manor clan has quite a few encounters with snakes, and they don't always end well. The show left viewers hanging at the end of one season after a meerkat called Shakespeare (a viewer favorite) had a run in with a puff adder. It was a life and death situation for Shakespeare, who remained unaccounted for when the show resumed the next season.

Similarly, researchers record encounters that meerkats have with snakes all the time. A study in Animal Behavior last month, called "The function of mobbing in cooperative meerkats", sought to learn whether mobbing behavior is used simply to deter predators or for other purposes. Animal Behavior doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2006.11.021, online August 17th. Also available via this direct link at ZORA (Zurich Open Repository and Archive) The authors first established previous thinking on meerkat mobbing:

The three main functional hypotheses for mobbing, namely predator deterrence, predator risk assessment and transfer of information, as well as the self-advertisement hypothesis, all predict that mobbing intensity will be correlated with threat level and the recruitment of others.

Then the authors frame their research question. Here's an excerpt:

"If meerkats mainly mob to deter predators, they should show a strong response to predators but not to non-dangerous animals, and continue this behaviour until the predator leaves the vicinity. Additionally, meerkats should only mob in situations where a predator is likely to leave, and avoid mobbing in situations where this is unlikely, such as on encountering predators hiding in boltholes or hollow trees...."

The authors looked at 564 natural mobbing encounters that recorded over six years. In these instances, did the meerkat lose interest in the subject? Or did the snake or hawk or other animal retreat? These two options were observed in only about 72 of the 564 cases. In all other cases, however, the outcome of the encounter is unknown. The researchers also rounded up various snakes, a pet cat, a pet squirrel, a dead squirrel and other miscellaneous animal subjects and presented them to the meerkats in a cage that the meerkats had been habituated to. The authors concluded that mobbing behavior in meerkats differs according to variables like the age and sex of the animal as well as the threat of the animal being mobbed. They wrote:

"The observations from natural encounters and the experiments showing that meerkats not only mobbed potential predators, but also frequently herbivores, suggest that this behavior is not only to deter predators. They also spent regularly a considerable amount of time mobbing predators that were unlikely to leave the area, such as predators sheltered in burrows (Kalahari Meerkat Project, unpublished data) and puff adders, which were never observed to move in response to meerkat mobbing. This supports that the purpose of mobbing in meerkats, besides deterring predators, is likely to be assessing the risk of the encountered animal and recruiting other group members to the stimuli, which may also serve to transfer information to the others."[emphasis mine]

The authors concluded that the adaptive behavior of the meerkats is used to "chase away predators", and to "gather information about the threat and/or motivation of a predator", which allows the meerkats to "coordinate group movement and group vigilance accordingly". In addition, they concluded "young meerkats learn to recognize predators and to respond to the varying degrees of threat". The final conclusion is arguably the most exciting because it supports the idea that (like humans), meerkats teach their young.

Puff Adders Retreat For National Geographic But Not for Researchers?

The author's puff adder data consisted of 106 observations, and in 94% of those the mongooses mobbed the puff adders. In 12 encounters the meerkats lost interest, and in 0 encounters the puff adder retreated. But in all of the other puff adder mobbing instances, which is as far as I can tell around 88/100 instances of mobbing, the outcomes were unknown. What happened?

The researchers use their evidence that the puff adders never respond to meerkat mobbing to help build their theory that mobbing behavior must be for a purpose other than meerkat saber to speak. But here in this video, National Geographic films a puff adder retreats as a mob of meerkats kick dirt at it. How does National Geographic manage to capture this puff adder behavior when the researchers can't? How many takes did it take National Geographic? Perhaps meerkats were having some off days for the researchers? What's real? Did National Geographic stage the story? Is it a puff piece? (Did they even use a real sportscaster to narrate the snake-meerkat stand-off?) Maybe the puff adder slinks away every 13th encounter with a meerkat? Would this new evidence be a snag in the meerkat learning story?

We scoured the National Endowment of the Arts site for lessons that might help us understand this, but to no avail. Unfortunately we may never know why the puff adders caught on National Geographic cameras readily slink off when dust is kicked on them by the vigilant meerkats, whereas for the researchers puff adders "never" retreat.

There are other things we don't understand about the meerkat study in Animal Behavior. The meerkats continue to mob herbivores despite the fact that the animals are no threat. The authors say indicates information transfer -- a teaching moment. But couldn't it just be a senior moment? Perhaps meerkats just perpetually forget about which threats are which? Or, on the other hand, if young meerkats mobbed innocuous squirrels more than older ones do, which the author says means they're naive, maybe young squirrels are just confident about their squirrel mobbing abilities-- like the fierce dog marauds the mailman safely behind the front door. Could meerkats be teaching themselves with and without the adults? Clearly I haven't been out there on the Kalihari with my notebook so you'll have to read the study yourself -- it has far more information of course, we've only skimmed the surface.

In concluding that mobbing serves as a classroom for young meerkats the authors build on previous animal behavior research, as well as their own. Perhaps it seems intuitive (wait--that's not science) that young meerkats would learn from their elders and indeed previous studies have shown that. But how does the puff adder data support their hypothesis? Given that meerkats do learn in these tight social interactions as has been shown, when did mongoose species evolve as independent self learners? How is that meerkats seem to need so much special tutoring? Do mongooses like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi engage in fewer interactions, that are just as relevant to learning in their unique species or are they truly independent learners? We await future research.


In "March On Penguins", March, 2005, we wrote about anthropomorphism in penguin movies.

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Umm I like this book

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