Meerkats – Everything You Ever Wanted to Know

Introduction to Meerkats

Most people are familiar with Meerkats from the character Timon in the movie The Lion King. But meerkats don’t really spend most of their time with a lion cub or warthog, real meerkats live together with family groups in a colony or pack called a “gang” or “mob” that contains up to 30 individual members.

Meerkats live in underground burrows and spend much of their time outside foraging, babysitting, grooming or playing together to keep their family unit as tight as possible. They have sentries that keep an eye out for possible danger. It is this kind of close-community existence that helps meerkats survive.

They love the sun so when not in their burrows or on duty safeguarding the group, you will often find the Meerkat basking under the sun, belly happily exposed.

Adorable Meerkat - http://ourbeautifulworldanduniverse.com/meerkats.html

Adorable Meerkat

Taxonomy/ Classification

Despite the name having a “kat” in it, the Meerkat is not really a “cat” – it is a member of the family Herpestidae or “mongoose family” and it looks more like a weasel, not a cat.

Meerkats belong to the carnivore group of mammals, which means they mostly eat “meat.” Their teeth and skeletal structure (like other mongooses) resemble those of the world’s earliest carnivores.

Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) family, Kalahari desert, South Africa

Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) family, Kalahari desert, South Africa

Range and habitat

Meerkats live in the grasslands and savannas of South Africa, Botswana, Angola, and Namibia. Often, you can find them settling within semi-arid plains near scrub vegetations.

Most can be found in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa (though it is not really a desert as it sustains many types of plants and animals).

Physical Description

Meerkats have yellowish brown or gray fur and has brown stripes running through their backs. They have black tips on their tails, black fur surrounding their ears as well as eyes, black noses, and long snouts. They are usually about 12 inches tall, with tails around 8 inches long. At birth, baby meerkats weigh less than 1.5-ounce and as adults, meerkats are just over 2-pounds.

A meerkat looking at you - http://ourbeautifulworldanduniverse.com/meerkats.html

A meerkat looking at you

Meerkat Diet

Like all mongoose, meerkats are agile hunters that forage during the day. They are diurnal animals with a diet that mainly consists of “meat” insects such as beetles, millipedes, and spiders. Sometimes, they also feed on roots, eggs, and small vertebrates.

Sweet Meerkat Face - http://ourbeautifulworldanduniverse.com/meerkats.html

Sweet Meerkat Face

Meerkat Behavior

Meerkats are vital and clever animals and are the most social type of all mongooses. They are social animals that live in mobs of 5 up to 30 individuals because it isn’t just safety that they can find in numbers but also companionship.

A meerkat mob consists of several family groups, each not having to be related to belong to the group. They have one dominant pair (1 dominate alpha male and 1 dominate alpha female). Each mob dwells in its own territory which the group sometimes moves if their food is scarce or if a stronger mob forces them out.

Sentries or on-guard-duty meerkats stand on their hind legs, usually perched atop a termite mound to sniff the wind and scan the sky detecting vultures or other potential dangers. They have excellent visions and are highly intelligent social animals that thrive well in their habitat.

Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) family, Kalahari, South Africa

Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) family, Kalahari, South Africa

Communication

Meerkats communicate within their mobs through a variety of body signals accompanied by a range of calls that include chirps, trills, growls, and alarm barks. (A meerkat is capable of a total of TEN different vocalizations!)

They communicate to warn the group against predators (birds of prey or snakes) or a rival meerkat troop nearing the burrow. The sentry makes a warning chirping call so all meerkats can run into their nearest burrow.

Meerkats also vocalize during their play.

A Meerkat Family

A Meerkat Family

Reproduction

Meerkats become sexually mature to mate at 1 year of age. Families consists of a breeding pair with an offspring, but only the dominant male and female in a colony are usually allowed to mate. (They produce most of the mob’s offsprings.) They mate at any time during a year, with the female typically having 1 to 5 pups in a litter.

Life Cycle

A young meerkat is typically called a “pup” or a “kit.” They are born hairless and blind inside the burrow. Adult meerkats take turns caring for the pups, sometimes even nursing them – and later teach them how to forage and catch food.

Baby meerkat

Baby meerkat

Meerkats will often stay in the same colony all their lives, but in case of a fight or sometimes loss of dominant status, a male and female pair may break off to form a new family. (This happens often too when a female meerkat meets a roving male.)

Meerkat Interesting Facts

  • The “Meerkat” name comes from South Africa’s Afrikaan language which means “marsh cat” or “lake cat” (despite meerkats not being cats and living in the desert!). Meerkats’ other names include African suricate and Slender-tailed meerkat.
  • Meerkats can kill and eat scorpions and small venomous snakes without dying or being hurt. They have partial immunity to certain venoms.
  • A meerkat can survive even without drinking water. It can get all the moisture it needs from eating tubers and roots as well as fruits like tsama
  • To be able to stand upright, a meerkat balances on its long, stiff tail functioning akin to a bicycle’s kickstand.
Meerkat resting on wood

Meerkat resting on wood

General Information about Meerkats.

MEERKAT (S. suricatta)

Life span: Average life expectancy: 12 years (8 years in the wild, up to 13 to 14 years in zoos)

Maturity age: 1 – 1.5 years

Size: Height/Length: 24 – 29 centimeters (9 – 11.5 inches) in length; Females are slightly larger than males

Weight: 0.64 – 0.95 kilograms (1.4 – 2.1 pounds)