Experience of the signaller explains the use of social versus personal information in the context of sentinel behaviour in meerkats

18 Oct 2018

To maximise foraging opportunities while simultaneously avoiding predation, group-living animals can obtain personal information on food availability and predation risk and/or rely on social information provided by group members. Although mainly associated with low costs of information acquisition, social information has the potential to be irrelevant or inaccurate. In this study we use playbacks of individually distinct sentinel calming calls produced during sentinel behaviour, a form of coordinated vigilance behaviour, to show that meerkats (Suricata suricatta) discriminate between social information provided by different sentinels and adjust their personal vigilance behaviour according to the individual that is played back. We found that foraging group members acquired the lowest amounts of personal information when hearing social information provided by experienced individuals that act as sentinels most often in their group and littermates. Our study shows that social information can be flexibly used in the context of sentinel behaviour in order to optimize the trade-off between foraging and vigilance behaviours dependent on discrimination among signallers. We also provide novel evidence that the experience of sentinels rather than their age or dominance status is the main factor affecting the extent to which individuals use social information.