Meerkats are the most murderous mammals in new ranking

September 29, 2016, 12:48 p.m.
Meerkat family
Photo: EcoPrint/Shutterstock

In a new study that looked at 1,024 mammal species, researchers found that meerkats are the most murderous. Yes, those adorable, smiling, family-oriented figures perched up on termite mounds, and with whom we associate the hakuna matata way of life, are quite likely to kill a fellow meerkat. About 20 percent of meerkat deaths are actually murders.

There are plenty of other species on the list that will surprise you with their murder rates. Chinchillas, New Zealand sea lions, Dama gazelles, lemurs and marmots ... the study results are eye-opening. But, what's particularly compelling about the study is how it causes us to more deeply analyze human behavior in relation to other species.

We may think of ourselves as a murderous bunch but it turns out, we're surprisingly docile. Well, relatively speaking. We are violent among mammal species, but our organizational skills — including laws, police forces, social taboos and other tools to keep the peace — have helped us to tone down our murderous ways compared to our historical records.

Science writer Ed Yong reports in The Atlantic:

[Researcher José María] Gómez’s team calculated that at the origin of Homo sapiens, we were six times more lethally violent than the average mammal, but about as violent as expected for a primate. But time and social organizations have sated our ancestral bloodthirst, leaving us with modern rates of lethal violence that are well below the prehistoric baseline. We are an average member of an especially violent group of mammals, and we’ve managed to curb our ancestry.

Our social structures have allowed the meerkat and other adorable, fuzzy animals to top the rankings and steal the headlines.

However, some researchers are skeptical about our rankings on the list, noting that the study authors throw everything into the mix, from individual murders to ritualized cannibalism, and that things are more complicated than they seem. The rankings could look quite different if rearranged to account for how a species tends to kill its own kind. For example, meerkats have a high rate of infanticide, but humans have a high rate of adult murders compared to other species.

"We tried to separate violence in different types, but we couldn’t find enough data," study author Gómez tells Yong. "But right now, we’re re-evaluating our database to explore whether different causes of mortality have different evolutionary patterns. I hope to tell you something more in the future."