Meerkats are best known for their alarm calls, which warn the rest of the burrow if danger is near. Now, researchers at the University of Zurich found that these animals can identify one another by voice alone, like humans.
Their discovery is the first evidence of a non-primate showing vocal recognition in the wild.
The researchers studying the animals in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa, played recordings of meerkat calls and observed the animals’ reactions.
They used recordings of the staccato “close calls” that meerkats make continually while they are foraging.
“We think the calls mainly function to keep the group together. But they also tell other individuals, ‘I’m here, this is my patch’,” lead researcher Dr Simon Townsend told the BBC.
The scientists placed speakers on either side of a foraging meerkat, and played a call from a member of their social group.
A few seconds later they played the call of a different member of the same group through a speaker on the opposite side.
“The meerkats showed more vigilance when their expectations were violated,” said Dr Townsend.
“They would stop foraging, orientate their ears towards the violation, or look in that direction,” he added.
Townsend said that recent research had shown that vocal recognition seemed to be “present in lots of different branches of the evolutionary tree”.
The finding is reported in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.