Discrete call types referring to predation risk enhance the efficiency of the meerkat sentinel system

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Peer-Reviewed Research


Sentinel behaviour, a form of coordinated vigilance, occurs in a limited range of species, mostly in cooperative breeders. In some species sentinels confirm their presence vocally by giving a single sentinel call type, whereby the rate and subtle acoustic changes provide graded information on the variation of perceived predation risk. In contrast, meerkat (Suricata suricatta) sentinels produce six different sentinel call types. Here we show that manipulation of perception of danger has different effects on the likelihood of emitting these different call types, and that these call types affect foraging individuals differently. Increasing the perceived predation risk by playing back alarm calls decreased the production rate of the common short note calls and increased the production rate of the rare long calls. Playbacks of short note calls increased foraging behaviour and decreased vigilance in the rest of the group, whereas the opposite was observed when playing long calls. This suggests that the common call types act as all-clear signals, while the rare call types have a warning function. Therefore, meerkats increase the efficiency of their sentinel system by producing several discrete call types that represent changes in predation risk and lead to adjustments of the group’s vigilance behaviour.