Behaviour and Endocrinology of Meerkats in Zoos
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Zoo-based research is important both to inform management decisions on captive animals and because zoos, at their best, provide a naturalistic environment, which it is possible to manipulate, in which scientific research can be performed. Extending research to multiple zoos enables investigation into how variations between zoos impact their occupants. Comparing zoo animals to their wild conspecifics can inform management decisions, improve breeding and reintroduction programmes, educate the visiting public and allow assessment of the relevance of zoo-based research to the broader field. The impact of captivity on social animals is particularly interesting, as they cannot determine their own social environment. Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are a highly social species of mongoose which have been extensively studied in the wild, and which are common in European zoos; they are therefore an ideal focal species with which to assess the impact of aspects of the zoo environment. This thesis presents a study of the behaviour, endocrinology and morphology of meerkats in ten zoos in the UK and one zoo in Germany. The size of captive meerkats' social groups was found to influence their behaviour and faecal glucocorticoid levels (fGCs), with animals in large groups exhibiting lower fGCs, which supports an optimum group size hypothesis. Meerkats in large groups also spent less time on sentry duty, although a sentry was posted more often in zoos than in the wild, reinforcing the model of state-dependent vigilance. Captive meerkats were found to weigh much more, on average, than their wild conspecifics, with 86.7% of adults more than two standard deviations heavier than the mean weight in the wild. Meerkats in larger enclosures were heavier than those in smaller ones; their weights also correlated with climate, with zoos in cool, dry locations having lighter meerkats. This research did not find that high levels of hormonal stress occur frequently in zoo meerkats, but obesity may pose a health threat to many individuals and its impacts should be a priority for veterinary research.
PhD in Biological Sciences