Kalahari, South Africa

Marta Manser, University of Zurich
Brigitte Spillmann, University of Zurich
Zoe Turner, Kalahari Research Centre

The Kalahari is a semi-arid desert: Its summers are hot and wet, its winters cold and dry. Over the year the landscape changes, and the dry sandy desert is overgrown with sour grass and small shrubs. Here lies the Kalahari Research Centre, where behavioural ecologist Marta Manser has been researching Meerkats for over 20 years.

The Kalahari Research Project was started at the Centre in 1993 and is still ongoing. It is led by the University of Zurich and Cambridge University and collaborates with several Universities in Europe, Africa and Australia. Its main focus is to investigate the sociality of mammals and birds in their habitats. Especially the cooperative behaviour, communication mechanisms, anti-predator strategies and patterns of decision-making in cooperative groups of Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) and Cape ground squirrels (Geosciurus inauris) are studied here.

While they may seem quite ordinary, their social structures are actually extremely complex and there are continuous new discoveries made regarding their behaviours and communication. For example, Meerkats have adapted physiologically to the extreme climate of the Kalahari Desert. They also show corresponding behavioral adaptations. In the winter, they warm up in the early morning by basking in the sun before heading out to forage. This allows them to maintain their body temperature without losing too much energy.

In their research, Marta Manser and her team mainly work with behavioural observations, acoustic recordings, health data (such as weight), and environmental data. Machine learning techniques are used to process acoustic data for the identification of individuals and for the clustering of call types. Camera traps are used too, though currently not systematically.

This makes the footage that was recorded for Triggered by Motion all the more special. The camera trap was positioned at the entrance to a meerkat and squirrel burrow system, where it recorded interesting behaviours that are rarely observed in person – for example, meerkats ‹wardancing› towards a rival group, or meerkats roaming alone to try to establish their own groups or to find a mate in another group.

Apart from Meerkats and Cape ground squirrels, especially Springbok (Antidorcas marsupialis) were observed regularly by the camera.

Next to the sociality of Meerkats, climate change is also an important topic at the Kalahari Research Centre. Heat periods during which food is scarce are getting longer, which has an impact on the Meerkat population. Marta Manser has found, for example, that the three-month-old cubs are lighter today than they used to be; and within the last two periods of drought, the meerkat population in the Kalahari has dropped by 50 percent. Against this backdrop, the research of Marta Manser and her team is vital.