Meerkat Babysitter
Meerkat adults with meerkat pups. Photo Courtesy of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor

What is ontogeny?

Ontogeny describes the development and sequential changes of an organismís trait or behavior over an individualís lifetime. Often ontological explanations as applied to Niko Tinbergenís four questions are concerned with the degree to which the behavior can be changed through learning.
New Discoveries in the Ontogeny of Sentinel Behavior

Not much about the genetics or development of sentinel or guard behavior is known, but if you navigate towards our Mechanism section, a recent study has shown there to be a strong link between oxytocin and prosocial behavior, such as guarding, in meerkats (Madden 2010). This discovery could help in elucidating and contributing to the limited knowledge we have of the development of sentinel behavior in meerkats.

What We Already Know

It is known that when a meerkat reaches the age of three months, it begins showing cooperative behaviors, such as baby-sitting, pup-feeding, digging, and sentinel standing (Clutton Brock et al. 2001). Sentinel behavior has been observed to be more frequent when foraging is less intense and/or predation threat is greater. In addition, males tend to act as sentinel more than females, and older individuals are sentinels more than juveniles (Bednekoff 1997).

Sentinelship, A Learned Skill?

However, in terms of observed behaviors that donít involve hormonal systems, scientists have only been able to infer possible ways of cultural transmission in meerkats. One study found that there was an observable teaching process in wild meerkats, as demonstrated through the transfer of skills in prey-handling from helper to pup (Thornton et al. 2006). According to the findings, one can infer that a similar form of teaching in meerkats is applied to learning other such skills as sentinel standing.

ďIt is often assumed that teaching requires awareness of the ignorance of pupils and a deliberate attempt to correct that ignorance, but viewed from a functional perspective, teaching can be based on simple mechanisms without the need for intentionality and the attribution of mental statesĒ (Thornton et al. 2006).