Slender-tailed meerkat, Suricate
Meerkats belong to the civet and mongoose family. Very small catlike carnivores, their faces often have a curious look, seemingly taking in everything in their surroundings. They have long bodies and short flat ears and are able to stand on their hind legs. The color of their coat can be gold, silver, brown or orange, with dark patches around the eyes. They can dig their own body weight of dirt within a few seconds and their high endurance enables them to build elaborate tunnels. Their social cooperation within a large group and their extensively burrowed tunnels helps them to survive in arid African deserts.
The meerkat has a wide distribution in southern Africa, from the extreme southwest of Angola, through Namibia and Botswana, and into west and north South Africa. They inhabit dry open country with sparse woody scrub and short grass.
Habits and lifestyle
The meerkat is like only three other mongoose species, in that it is highly sociable and inhabits territories in groups. A group usually has 10 to 30 individuals (although much larger ones are not uncommon where the food supply is plentiful) consisting of three or four family units with a male and female and their young. Once they come out of their burrows in the early morning sun to sunbathe, most of them will go off to seek food while the others act as guards or babysit the young. By standing on their hind legs up on mounds and in bushes, the guards are able to have a good view of approaching predators, particularly those in the sky. They will use different alarm calls to alert the group to the danger, and often the whole group will dive into the burrow to hide.
troop, committee, delegation, mongeese, mongaggle
Diet and nutrition
Meerkats are mainly insectivorous, eating insects such as scorpions (they are immune to the venom), beetles, spiders, crickets, centipedes, millipedes and worms. They also eat eggs, roots, tubers, small reptiles and small mammals.
Meerkats exhibit a monogamous mating system, meaning that the dominant male and female of each group are usually the only individuals to successfully breed. However, subordinate females very occasionally will reproduce, and subordinate males will temporarily leave the group to try to mate with females of other groups, which suggests polygynous behavior. The breeding season in the wild runs from October to April, whereas in captivity they breed year round. Gestation lasts for 11 weeks, with 2 to 5 pups being born. The pups stay in their burrow for three weeks, ‘babysat’ by helpers. When they are four weeks old, they will begin to go with the group to forage, and for their first 49 to 63 days will be fed by the helpers, at the same time being taught how to get their own food. This species becomes sexually mature at about 1 year of age
At present there are no significant threats to the meerkat.
According to the Natural History on the net resource, the total population size of the meerkat in the wild is around 500,000 individuals. Currently this species is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List and its numbers today remain stable.
Meerkats have an important role in the food web, providing food for the animals that are their natural predators (hawks, eagles, jackals). They eat many invertebrates, and so probably act as a control on these prey populations.
Fun facts for kids
- The Honolulu Zoo keeps only male meerkats so that there is no possibility of escaped animals establishing a breeding population, which could cause serious damage to the natural ecosystem.
- A very keen sense of smell enables meerkats to locate prey, which they will dig out, using their long-clawed forefeet.
- A meerkat can move 50 times its body weight of sand and dig 400 holes in just half a day.
- The black patches around a meerkat’s eyes help protect it against the sun’s constant glare, rather like sunglasses for a human.
- Able to survive drinking no water, meerkats get the necessary moisture from eating tubers and roots, as well as fruit like tsama melons.
- When standing erect, a meerkat will balance on its long, stiff tail, using it like a kickstand for a bicycle.
- In the Disney film The Lion King, Timon was a meerkat.
- Young meerkats are so afraid of birds that airplanes will scare them into their burrows.
- As adaptations to living in a sandy habitat, meerkats are able to close their ears so that sand will stay out, and they also have a third eyelid that protects their eyes.