They are known for their comical behaviour and ability to live in large social groups or “clans”.
But a new study of meerkats in the wild has found that almost half are affected by inbreeding, impacting upon their chances of survival.
The University of Edinburgh said researchers examined data from almost 2,000 meerkats in groups at the Kuruman River Reserve in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa.
Working with scientists from the universities of Cambridge and Zurich and the Zoological Society of London, their 20-year study recorded births and deaths and the movement of meerkats between colonies.
Newborn pups were weighed and measured, their DNA was analysed and their parentage determined.
The teams found that 44 per cent of the meerkats studied showed some evidence of inbreeding, and pups that were inbred were smaller, lighter and less likely to survive than their counterparts.
The scientists’ work showed that closely-related meerkats never breed with each other, but that inbreeding occurred between more distantly related individuals who were unfamiliar with one another, perhaps because they lived in separate groups.
Edinburgh University said the research raises questions about whether other social mammals, such as other mongeese, prairie dogs and tamarin monkeys, are similarly affected by inbreeding.
The study, supported by the Natural Environment Research Council, has been published in the journal Molecular Ecology.