Meerkats Are Getting Climate Sick

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Meerkats live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, in much of the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and in South Africa. Credit: Alan Tunnicliffe Photography/Getty Images

For meerkats in the Kalahari Desert, rising temperatures spark deadly outbreaks of tuberculosis.

Karen Hopkin: This is Scientific American’s 60-Second Science. I’m Karen Hopkin.

Climate change. It is responsible for an increase in droughts, floods, wildfires, and storms. A new study has shown that tuberculosis is increasing in meerkats. The findings appear in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Maria Paniw: So tuberculosis is an endemic disease in meerkats. Since meerkats were first studied, tuberculosis has been a common disease in the community.

Hopkin: Maria Paniw is a researcher at the Donana Biological Research Station in Spain. According to her, TB cases have been increasing in Kalahari meerkats. The local temperatures have also been on the rise, coincidentally.

Paniw: So we wanted to know whether there was a link between climate change, which you know has been increasing temperature extremes, and increases in tuberculosis outbreaks. How this could affect the populations of these social species.

Hopkin: So Paniw and her colleagues crunched the numbers.

Paniw: I was very fortunate to collaborate with the Kalahari Meerkat Project which is a fantastic project where we now have over 22 years of very detailed data on individual meerkats and about their survival, their reproduction, their growth, their movement, and so on. It’s a rich data set to work from.

Hopkin: They used the data to build models to predict how climate change will affect meerkat populations.

Paniw: Our main results show that climate change affects meerkats primarily by increasing the likelihood of deadly TB outbreaks.

Hopkin: And according to the model, it can do so in two ways.

Paniw: First, extremely hot years induce physiological stress on meerkats because meerkats need to hide from the extreme heat. They don’t have enough time to hunt for food. Extreme heat may also be associated w/ low rainfall and consequently, a lack of food availability.

Hopkin: That stress increases the probability that an endemic disease will turn into an outbreak that can completely wipe out meerkat populations….with the extinction risk for local groups predicted to double over the next dozen years.

Paniw: And the other way is that climate change also sort of destabilizes local groups and makes male meerkats much more mobile.

Hopkin: Meerkats live in social groups from which males normally disperse to find mates. Males are more likely to travel when it’s warm.

Paniw: And with that they carry disease, they carry tuberculosis with them, and by moving around too much they spread disease between meerkat groups which again increases the chances or the risks of severe outbreaks.

Hopkin: And Paniw says it’s not merely meerkats that should be concerned about the climate.

Paniw: This finding is particularly interesting and important because tuberculosis is a very widespread disease which affects many species including livestock that is quite important for humans.

Hopkin: Yet another way that climate change could land us all in hot water.

For Scientific American’s 60-Second Science, I’m Karen Hopkin.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

    Karen Hopkin is a freelance science writer in Somerville, Mass. She holds a doctorate in biochemistry and is a contributor to Scientific American‘s 60-Second Science podcasts.

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