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New study explores sinister side of meerkats

JOHANNESBURG -- One of the most captivating sights of African wildlife is that of dark-eyed meerkats standing side-by-side on their hind legs, as though posing for a group photograph. They look cuddly and endearing. But a new study says they have a dark side.

The dominant female meerkat in a group banishes the other females when they give birth, killing and even eating their offspring to ensure a plentiful food supply for the alpha couple's own pups and a labor pool of meerkat babysitters who don't have their own young to rear.

In the mass media, meerkats have a gentler image, inspiring advertisers, a character in the animated movie “The Lion King” and a TV documentary series that told the story of a meerkat family in southern Africa. That television show, “Meerkat Manor,” explored the meerkats' often harsh existence but also gave names to the animal “stars,” helping to get viewers emotionally involved.

“Flower” was one of those meerkats. In light of the new study, “Cannibal” could be an apt name for a dominant female meerkat.

The recent study by a group of British and South African universities, as well as the Kalahari Meerkat Project in South Africa, builds on observations that dominant meerkats use violence to regulate breeding in their own group and to survive in tough, desert environments.

“Since meerkats are cute and fluffy, and have been saccharine, anthropomorphized poster children for happy family life, it comes across as more shocking,” the study's leader, Dr. Matthew Bell of the University of Edinburgh's School of Biological Sciences, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. Contrary to the public perception, he wrote, meerkat lives are “nasty, brutish and short!”

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Meerkat Manor in an enclosure at the Pretoria Zoo, South Africa, Wednesday, Aug. 13. This photo was released by AP on Aug.15. (AP)

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