In order to spot potential predators, adult meerkats often climb to a higher vantage point or stand on their hind legs, ready to sound an alarm to a meerkat colony if a threat is spotted.
Researchers from Cambridge University said their studies found adult meerkats were more likely to scan for predators when young pups are present in the group, suggesting it's an altruistic behavior rather than for just the individual meerkat's own preservation.
"You see similar behavior in a range of mammal and bird species, and we know from previous work that other group members are less likely to be attacked by predators when someone is on guard," Cambridge doctoral student Peter Santema said.
"Biologists have been debating, however, whether the protection that other group members enjoy is just a side-effect or one of the reasons why individuals perform these guarding behaviors."
Scientists observed non-breeding adult meerkats in the period just before the dominant female's pups had joined the group on foraging trips and then again immediately after the pups joined.
After the pups had joined the group on foraging trips adults showed a sudden increase in their vigilance behavior, they said.
"These results are exciting, as they show us that individuals are not just on the lookout for their own safety, but that the protection of other group members is another motivation for these behaviors," Santema said.