Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"
The animal most people know as a 'meerkat' is actually just one species of a large family of predators more properly called mongooses (or mongeese if you will!). Its proper name is the Suricate, scientific name Suricata suricatta. The name 'meerkat' comes from the German Meerkatze meaning 'Lake (or Sea) Cat'. Today this German word is mostly used to refer to monkeys! In Afrikaans this species is called a Graatjiemeerkat (fishbone meerkat) or Stokstertmeerkat (stick-tail meerkat) to refer to its tail, which is thin and hairless, unlike the bushy tails of most other mongooses. It belongs to the feline branch of the carnivore order, along with the other mongooses and the civets, genets, the Madagascan carnivores, the hyenas, and the cats themselves.
Meerkats are well known and popular, having featured in many wildlife documentaries and even having had television series dedicated to them! They are also extremely photogenic, with a very human appearance. They have round heads with small, round, low-set ears; big, black, bright, forward-facing, alert eyes; and a habit of standing up on their hind legs when they want to see what's going on. Add to this their general cuddliness, and, well, you understand why they shall soon be ruling the world. More power to them I say ... it's not as if we humans have been doing such a bang up job.
At the moment, however, Meerkats almost, but not quite, rule only a small portion of the Earth: the dry-lands of Southern Africa. 'Not quite', because while they are well entrenched and numerous in their habitat, they are still under the thumb of a few larger species. Their constant alertness is due to the presence of numerous predators, such as large eagles, snakes, jackals, hyenas and big cats. Snakes they can sometimes deal with: like other mongooses/mongeese, they will band up against and attack quite sizeable snakes. Snakes form a part of their diet, in fact. They will also, in numbers, be able to fight off smaller predators like jackals.
They are indeed predators themselves. Most of their quarry consists of insects like grasshoppers, crickets and beetle larvae, and other invertebrates like spiders and scorpions. They seem to be immune to scorpion venom. They will also eat lizards, small rodents, and birds' eggs. They eat some kinds of fruit as well. Their weaponry consists of a mouth full of numerous sharp teeth. On their paws they have long claws – those on the front paws being especially long. These are used for digging rather than for clawing and gouging ... a meerkat's digging ability is outstanding. They can excavate small, burrowing prey, but they also dig their own dens, in which they can keep safe, and shelter from the burning sun or from dust storms.
These dens can be very large, with many different exits, and are used by many meerkats. They are indeed very social – always living in groups, typically consisting of 20-30 members. These are usually all closely related.
A very important activity in the Meerkat society is that of 'guard duty'. An appointed sentry ... not always the same one ... gets to a high position, often a termite hill, or a bush or a dead tree, and from there keeps a constant lookout for danger while the others of the colony forage. If danger is spotted, he (or she) will bark, and all will dive for shelter. The sentry is usually the first to come out again to see if the coast is clear.
Baby meerkats are born in grass-lined chambers in the warrens, and litters can number up to five. The young are fairly independent by the age of 10 weeks, and by six months they're fully grown.
What's interesting about meerkats is that they are usually associated with large ungulates, their warrens often being close to water-holes or pans where the big game go to drink. Many of the insects they eat are also associated with the big mammals, such as dung beetle larvae. They will also share their warrens on occasion with ground squirrels, or even with snakes!
At present, Meerkats are not endangered, having a wide distribution and being protected in numerous game reserves.
For more about the mongoose family, see my article on the Yellow Mongoose.