Species: Suricata suricatta; Genus: Suricata; Family: Herpestidae; Order: Carnivora; Class: Mammalia; Phylum: Chordata; Kingdom: Animalia.
The Southern African meerkat1 is a relative of the mongoose inhabiting the Kalahari Desert, which is part of Angola, Namibia and southern Botswana.
Their strong family bond and sense of duty in protecting the rest of the clan gives meerkats a 'caring' personality which strikes a chord in most people. Due to the popularity of wildlife documentaries and Disney film characters, meerkats have become a much-loved creature with a worldwide fan base.
The meerkat is a community-minded mammal with appealing features, about the size of a domestic cat. They have long snouts with sensitive whiskers, and an incredible sense of smell which helps detect food underground. The black outer ring around each eye acts as natural sun protection. Their excellent vision helps them to pinpoint aerial threats while they are still too far away to swoop. Meerkats have a streamlined, fur-covered body with a bare underbelly, and their dark-tipped tail, which is about 20cm long, helps them balance when they are standing. They can run quite fast on all-fours, with their slim tails erect like little flagpoles so the other members of the gang can see which direction they're running. They have four toes on each foot and non-retractable claws which are their digging tools. Adult meerkats grow to a height of 30cm, and weigh about a kilogram (2lbs). They can live up to 15 years, but this is rare in the harsh and precarious life in the African desert.
Life in the Desert
Meerkats live in gangs of family groups, with up to 30 members. They are very territorial and guard their ground fiercely, fighting off interlopers, including other meerkats who aren't part of their gang. Meerkats are active during the day, although they will seek shade from the burning heat of the midday sun under a large tree, where they will cuddle up together and have a short siesta.
Meerkats are family orientated and they will not create incestuous relationships. At night they sleep in burrows which have been lined with dry grasses, and they don't mind if they've been previously occupied by squirrels or other similarly-sized animals. The males forage for food, fight off intruders, and take it in turns on their most important task: sentry duty.
Alert sentry duty means literally the difference between life and death for the meerkats. The primary predators of meerkats are eagles and jackals, but large snakes2 are also a danger. The meerkat on duty stands on his hind legs and keeps his back rigid. He constantly looks around for land threats, and skywards for birds of prey.
Sometimes others join him, standing at different angles to provide a panoramic view with less effort. Others are posted at various extremes of the gang's current patch. Adult females are also trusted to stand guard while males forage.
Meerkats have their own language, with a variety of 'alarm calls' signalling different predatory threats. Once spooked, a single bark from the sentinel will galvanize the whole gang into action. Depending on which bark alerts the group, they will either head down into the burrows to escape an aerial attack, or climb trees to avoid a large snake (which would follow them underground and be led to the nursery).
The 'Queen' and her Pups
One dominant female, the 'queen', rules the group, and only she is allowed to breed with the alpha male. If any of the other females breed, the queen is likely to kill the offspring3. Meerkats give birth to live young (usually two but can be as many as six4), after a gestation period of 11 weeks. Underground nurseries are dug for the birth of the pups, who would not survive above ground. Once born, the completely-bald pups are totally helpless with their eyes closed for the first few weeks of life.
Meerkat pups are weaned at about two months old, and warily venture above ground. They instinctively start practicing sentry duty, but invariably fall asleep on the job and keel over. They also play-fight with their brothers, sisters, uncles and older relatives. Meerkat young reach sexual maturity at around one year of age.
The other older females in the gang act as babysitters for the meerkat queen's latest brood. They are responsible for the welfare and safety of the next generation, and teach the youngsters to dig. If there are young to be moved from the threatened nursery, they are gathered up very gently and carried to safety in the babysitter's jaws.
Meerkats eat insects such as beetles, centipedes, millipedes and crickets; small mammals; rodents; small reptiles; fruit; eggs; grubs; larve; pupae; tubers and roots. Worms make a tasty meal and they are also fun to share. As meerkats are sleek, fit animals, they don't have the capacity to store fat so have to eat often. They forage, mostly by digging, shifting their own body-weight in sand every quarter-hour, which is no mean feat in the baking hot Sun. The food they find is quickly gobbled up, but they always take some back for the babysitters and the queen, as she is no doubt nursing her young and needs the extra protein for milk production.
Meerkats are immune to scorpion venom, but they have to learn how to catch them without getting a nasty nip. Once they have caught one and deftly removed the scorpion's pincers, they can tear the carapace to pieces with their sharp teeth and relish their delicacy. Maybe you would run a mile from a big fat hairy bird-eating spider, but they're always a welcome addition to the meerkat menu.
Meerkats live quite happily in captivity given the right conditions. A specially-adapted enclosure called 'Meerkat Manor' was built for four meerkats who arrived at Drayton Manor Zoo in Staffordshire in 2005. They have been named Malik, Zengha, Cleo and Aja, and the keepers are hoping they will eventually breed.
Six pups born at Edinburgh Zoo in 2004 were the fifth litter of parents Azaria and Adam. The youngsters were a target for seagulls and foxes but all survived. Zoo visitors were asked to name the new arrivals, all of which were requested to be Biblical names beginning with 'E'.
The meerkats who live at The Jungle wildlife sanctuary in Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, come out of their den to dig holes in the sand of their enclosure, while one keeps a lookout for potential trouble. You can offer them a monkey nut or two but beware of their sharp claws. They don't take an awful lot of notice of human visitors unless you are wearing spectacles or reflective sunglasses, which upsets them as they think their own reflection is a strange meerkat. In 2004 the queen and the alpha male produced a batch of pups which made the front page of the local press and increased visitor numbers by 50%. The pups were fun to watch as they dug in the sand, chased flies, stood on guard and fell over.
Meerkats are wild creatures but just occasionally you hear of one which lives with a human family. Merlin is a bit of a handful but he's pretty tame, reports his owner Matt Rowthorn. Merlin likes to eat bananas, mice, insects like cockroaches, and grubs; and he stands guard on the back of the sofa.
This female meerkat at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia, likes to chill out.
Meerkats in Popular Culture
- Meerkat Manor was a TV programme produced in the style of a soap opera. It starred Zaphod (the alpha male), Flower (the queen), Tosca (their promiscuous daughter), Youssarian (Flower's ex and would-be alpha), and Mozart and Shakespeare (both suspect-fathers of Tosca's brood).
- The wise-cracking, singing, permanently-hungry meerkat character Timon in the Oscar-winning5 Disney film The Lion King was so popular he got his own spin-off adventures with his pal Pumbaa the warthog. If you have never been introduced to this hilarious duo, try and imagine Laurel and Hardy in cartoon animal form. Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata! starred Timon and his best friend Pumbaa telling their account of the Lion King story6.
- A BBC documentary called Meerkats United was so popular it spawned two sequels. The gang that Sir David Attenborough introduced to the world accepted his presence and he eventually got treated as part of the family. A memorable scene showed David lying on the ground with a meerkat sentinel stood on his chest, standing guard.
- Meerkats appear in The Life of Pi, a novel by Canadian author Yann Martel, which won a 'Booker' prize.
- In the BBC Radio 4 programme Natural Despots, Michael Portillo met a gang of meerkats in the Kalahari desert.
Adopt A Meerkat
It is illegal to own a meerkat without the proper licenses and permits. If you wish to support the Fellow Earthlings' Wildlife Center which homes sick, injured or abandoned meerkats, you can 'adopt' (financially support) a meerkat at their website.