Humans might not be the only species that actively teach their young -- scientists have discovered that adult meerkats also pass on knowledge about prey to their offspring, with consciousness and for free, it was reported on Thursday.
Most animals do not have those kinds of teacher, or at least scientists have not seen many animal teachers in the wild. There is little evidence to show that animals possess the necessary means to be able to teach, that is to say, directed mechanisms for transferring skills from one individual to another.
But two British researchers have now shown that older meerkats teach youngsters how to grab a snack by increasing their opportunities to handle live prey, sometimes nudging morsels toward pups and even removing the stingers from scorpions before letting their young pupils try for a taste.
The findings indicated that teaching may have evolved independently in many unrelated species, including ants, meerkats and humans, the researchers said.
Writing in the July 14 edition of the journal, Science, Alex Thornton and Katherine McAuliffe from the University of Cambridge said adult meerkats were definitely good teachers.
Older meerkat teachers bring things like grasshoppers back to their hungry pups, so they can practise catching and eating the wriggly bugs. If a grasshopper jumps free, the teacher will push the bug back toward the pups so they can try again.
The meerkats also change this behavior over time as the pups get older and more adept.
Teaching was costly for the older meerkats, since they received no direct benefit from their work and spent much time and effort on the process, the researchers found.
Adult meerkats spend a lot of time chasing after food for their young, leaving less time for the grown-ups to have their own snacks. But the pups get better at catching and eating as they mature, thanks to their hard-working teachers.
The findings reveal that teaching may not require human beings' complicated consciousness, as many species can be good teachers with just basic mechanisms, according to the researchers.
"Viewed from a functional perspective, teaching can be based on simple mechanisms without the need for intentionality and the attribution of mental states," they said.
"By differentially responding to the calls of pups of different ages, helpers may accelerate pups' learning of handling skills without the need for complex cognitive processes."