Scientists studying a population of the animals in the wild – which live in groups of up to 50 individuals, where subordinate adults help parents care for their offspring – found that almost half showed some evidence of inbreeding.
The research, by the universities of Edinburgh, Cambridge and Zurich, and the Zoological Society of London, examined data from almost 2000 wild meerkats living in groups at the Kuruman River Reserve in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa.
The 20-year study recorded births, deaths and movement of meerkats between colonies. Newborn pups were weighed and measured, and their DNA analysed. Scientists observed which females were pregnant and combined this information with genetic evidence to determine the parentage of pups.
Researchers found that 44 per cent of meerkats showed some evidence of inbreeding, and pups that were inbred were smaller, lighter and less likely to survive than their outbred counterparts.