Science brief: New study tracing the roots of human violence reveals the “most murderous mammal”

Above: a savage family of meerkats waiting to turn on one another

Imagine you’re having a nightmare about being trapped with an animal. What do you picture? Perhaps a rhino, with its massive jaws gaping open, or a snake coiling tighter and tighter, or a shark headed straight for your boogie board. For me it’s a mountain lion, stalking me and my dog from the shadows of the large boulders I jog past on my favorite mountain trail.

In fact, none of these are the most murderous animal. A recent study published in the journal Nature bestowed… drum roll… meerkats with the honor of being the most likely mammal to kill others within its own species.

What makes these adorable little critters so likely to turn on their own kind? According to the researchers, the same trait that made the animals so endearing in Animal Planet’s television series “Meerkat Manor” – their strict social hierarchy – sometimes leads grown meerkats to kill their young, making room for offspring from a more dominant mate.

The study, conducted by University of Granada researchers, examined more than 1,024 different mammals while looking into the roots of human lethal violence. Two species of monkeys and three species of lemurs ranked highest behind the bloodthirsty meerkats, while humans didn’t make the top 30.

Despite what we may think after watching the evening news or Law and Order reruns, humans are relatively low on the list of murderous mammals. Only 0.01 percent of human deaths are caused by homicide, the study said.

Before mankind invented laws and social norms, however, we were a bit higher on the list. According to the researchers, 2 percent of our primitive human ancestors’ deaths were caused by murder – coming in just below apes at 2.3 percent.

What can be gathered from this information? Maybe this data points to the optimistic idea that the laws and norms that sometimes complicate and restrain human life are actually fairly effective at preventing us from killing each other. Alternatively, the research could teach us that small and cute doesn’t always mean harmless and innocent. If nothing else, this could prompt a new trend for the spookiest Halloween costume: the cut-throat, murderous meerkat.

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