Below is a summary of the paper’s findings, along with a personal reflection on the study.
Our first set of results revealed that intense competition between pups was associated with shorter telomeres at roughly 1 month old. Meerkat pups with short telomeres at this early stage were less likely to survive into adulthood. Next, we looked for factors and strategies that might protect pups from short telomeres and reduced survival.
First, we looked at food. Are pups competing over food? Is this why their telomeres shorten? If food competition is relaxed, are meerkat pups’ telomere protected? We tested this by experimentally feeding pregnant and lactating mothers. We found that pups from fed mothers had longer telomeres, regardless of the competition they faced. So pups are competing for food, and pups from well-fed mums are resilient and have longer telomeres!
Next we looked at what mothers might do to protect their pups. Previous studies have shown that meerkat mums ruthlessly harrass other pregnant females, and mercilessly murder their pups. We wanted to investigate how these tactics affected the competition faced by their own pups, and whether this might impact their telomeres. We found that murderous meerkat mums typically kill 4 rival pups, reducing the competition faced by their own pups. We would predict this would be associated with a 7% increase in telomere lengths - quite a health boost!
A big 'thank you' to all those who helped with this study (that essentially means anybody who has collected data on our meerkats in the last 8 years!). On to the next project - investigating telomere lengths in adult meerkats!