They are known for living in packs and being sociable animals. Now meerkats are being investigated to see if they can also pick up on human emotions.
Researchers and psychologists from Nottingham Trent University are studying meerkats in zoos to see if they can detect emotions such as happiness, sadness or anger from people, and whether they then adapt their behaviour accordingly.
The team want to better understand the potential effect people have on zoo animals. They will be monitoring the behaviour and interactions of meerkats with zookeepers, whom they see regularly, and with zoo visitors, with whom they are unfamiliar.
The study will investigate how the animals react to different people and whether they demonstrate empathy by mirroring their emotions.
Dr Samantha Ward, a zoo animal welfare researcher at Nottingham Trent University’s school of animal, rural and environmental sciences, said: “Wild animals housed in zoos undergo daily interactions with familiar and unfamiliar people and this presents an ideal opportunity to see if they recognise human emotions and in a sense ‘catch’ them.
“We’re keen to know whether these abilities might be influenced by the frequency of human-animal interactions, as might be the case with strangers, or familiarity with known people such as zookeepers. For example, if zookeepers influence the behaviour of meerkats but the visitors do not, then this could impact the management of the animals.
“If it’s the people rather than the zookeepers, then that could be considered when undertaking measures such as enclosure design.”
Experts already believe that domesticated animals such as cats, dogs and horses are able to understand how people feel, but less is known about wild animals housed in zoos.
Meerkats are highly attentive to their surroundings, including to zoo visitors, and commonly interact with both familiar and unfamiliar people as part of animal-visitor experiences. For these reasons, they are considered the perfect species on which to focus.
Dr Annika Paukner, associate professor in comparative psychology at Nottingham Trent University’s school of social sciences, said: “Our study combines expertise in zoo biology and human-animal interactions with psychology and comparative cognition. The recognition of others’ emotions is vital for effective interactions across social animals, including humans.
“People are so sensitive to others’ emotions, for instance that interacting with an anxious person may increase one’s own anxiety. It is important that we understand how common this ability is among animals, and what the implications are for human-animal interactions.”
Nottingham Trent University has received funding from the Leverhulme Trust for the three-year project.