Long-term movements and home-range changes: Rapid territory shifts in meerkats


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Abstract

Territoriality and stable home ranges are a common space-use pattern among animals. These ranges provide its inhabitants with important resources and thus favourable territories are associated with an increased fitness. While the role of territory quality and changes of territory ownership have often been investigated, the changes of territorial boundaries have been less studied.Here, we investigated space-use changes in a social mammal species, applying a novel analytical approach, calculating long-term dissimilarity in space use using distancematrices based on periodic utilization distributions. This approach makes it possible to identify different space-use patterns, which cannot be distinguished by only considering changes between consecutive time periods.We analysed meerkat (Suricata suricatta) movements of a total of 24 different groups over a 16-year period, resulting in 134 group years. We then correlated the identified home-range changes to life-history events and possible environmental drivers.Groups had stable territories for several years before they abandoned their home range mostly to move quickly to new areas where they again remained for several years. Of 26 identified sudden shifts, 22 occurred in the summer months and often involved distances larger than the original home-range size. Home-range movements that were close together in time were often also spatially clustered and moved in a similar direction. These shifts were often preceded by more frequent interactions between groups, but did not seem to be a product of direct displacements by other groups. The normalized difference vegetation index as a measure of food production and social factors such as dominance changes did not correlate to changes.Against our expectation space-use changes were not accumulations of small changes, but more often involved long-distance moves into unknown ranges. This means that the groups enter areas where they cannot profit from local knowledge. The methods used identify episodes of long stability alternated by sudden changes in meerkats and in general provides insight into long-term space use. Our methods can be used to analyse long-term space use, either within or across species.

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