Animals of many species tend to target their foraging attempts toward particular microhabitats within their habitat. Although these preferences are critical determinants of the foraging niche and have important ecological and evolutionary implications, we know little about how they develop. Here, we use detailed longitudinal data from meerkats (Suricata suricatta) to examine how individual learning and the use of social information affect the development of foraging microhabitat preferences. Despite living in an open, arid environment, adult meerkats frequently foraged at the base of vegetation. Young pups seldom did so, but their foraging microhabitat choices became increasingly adult-like as they grew older. Learning about profitable microhabitats may have been promoted in part by positive reinforcement from prey capture. Foraging may also have become increasingly targeted toward suitable locations as pups grew older because they spent more time searching before embarking on foraging bouts. The development of microhabitat preferences might also have been influenced by social cues. Foraging in close proximity to adults may increase the probability that pups would dig in similar microhabitats. Also, pups often dug in holes created by older individuals, whereas adults never dug in existing holes. Foraging in existing holes was no more profitable to pups than creating their own foraging hole but could provide pups with important informational benefits. The integration of personal and social information is likely to be a common feature in the development of the foraging niche in generalist species. ¬© The Author 2008. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology. All rights reserved.
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