The suricate (Suricata suricatta) or meerkat is a small mongoose that lives in southern Africa. A wide head, large eyes, a pointed snout, long legs, a thin tapering tail, and a tawny hues characterize this diminutive mongoose. Except for dwarf mongooses (genus Helogale) and probably Galerella species, the meerkat is smaller than most other mongooses and is known as a highly sociable animal.
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Characteristics of Meerkats
The head and body lengths of meerkats are typically are about 24–35 cm (9.4–13.8 in), and their weight is between 0.62–0.97 kg (1.4–2.1 lb), with no difference between sexes (though some dominant females can be heavier than the rest).
There are three subspecies of meerkat: the Banded meerkat, the Kousi Mansi and the Dwarf mongoose. They are known for their ability to stand straight on their hind feet to survey the land and for their team work in almost all aspects of life.
The soft coat of the meerkat is light grey to yellowish-brown in color, with alternating light and dark bands on the back. Darker individuals are found in the southern part of the range. Meerkats have adapted foreclaws of nearly an inch long for digging and can thermoregulate (regulate their body temperature) to live in their harsh, dry environment.
Meerkats are eusocial (showing advanced social organization) and live in packs of two to thirty individuals with home ranges of about 5 km2 (1.9 sq mi).
Distribution of Meerkats
The meerkat can be found in southwest Botswana, especially the Kalahari desert, western and southern Namibia, northern and western South Africa, and southwestern Angola. It can be found in a number of arid, open environments with little woody vegetation that has stony, mostly calcareous land. They like savannahs, open plains, and rocky areas along dry rivers in biomes including the Fynbos and the Karoo, where the average annual rainfall is less than 600 mm (24 in).
Of stony, mostly calcareous environments, rock crevices, and plains, meerkat habitats must be able to allow them to di deep burrow systems. Burrows are vast underground networks consisting of two to three layers of tunnels that are usually 5 m (16 ft) in diameter with about 15 small openings from which they can flee predators. Tunnels are about 7.5 cm (3.0 in) long at the top and broader below, and they reach a depth of 1.5 m (4.9 ft).
Internal temperatures in meerkat burrows are moderate, creating a comfortable microclimate that protects meerkats from cold weather and high temperatures. Meerkats are most active throughout the day, usually in the early morning and late afternoon; they are often on the lookout for threat and return to burrows (or ‘boltholes’) when they detect them.
Meerkats are mostly insectivorous, eating beetles and lepidopterans, but they also eat amphibians, arthropods, small birds, reptiles, and plant material.
Fantastic facts About Meercats
- A group of meerkats is called a mob or gang.
- Adults take turns to be on sentry.
- The lookout will leave the burrow first and signal if the coast is clear
- Scorpions are a tasty snack for meerkats
- Meerkats are immune to scorpion bites but will leave the stinging tail when eating.
- Over 20 different vocalizations are used by meerkats
Predators of Meerkats
On the Kalahari desert, their most populous territory meerkats have several eagle predators, several owl predators and several hawks who use their long distant vision to hunt meerkats. The Marshall eagle is their most infamous predator, being the biggest eagle in Africa. It has a wingspan of 2.5 meters and powerful talons.
Meerkats possess their own adaptions to help them spot danger. Black eye patches protect their vision from the glare of the sun so they can spot raptors. Through teamwork, they can outsmart predators. With almost a paranoid alertness, adults take turns to be on patrol. If a sentry spots a threat he will let out a triple whoop’ sound. The group is in constant communication that helps keep them alive.
Jackals, are land dwelling predators of Meerkats. When a sentry spots a jackal it will sound the alarm and the whole troop will take cover underground. King cobras are another deadly enemy of the meerkat.
Social Behavior of Meerkats
Interactions between members of different packs are often violent, resulting in serious injury and even death. Females, particularly the heaviest, attempt to gain supremacy over the leader. They live in a matriarchal society. However, males will take over duties when the female is pregnant. Meerkats communicate through sounds, body language and scent and most conflicts are over control over burrows.
Females who grew faster were more likely to claim superiority, according to a study. Males pursuing group dominance scent mark extensively and are not submissive; they often push out older males in a group and take control of the pack themselves.They use a wide range of calls to communicate with one another for a number of reasons, such as to raise alarm when they see a predator or to raise disputes against other groups.
Meerkats will groom each other like many breeds of monkeys. This grows social bonds and helps rid fur from parasites.
A social hierarchy exists in which dominant individuals breed and bear offspring, while non-breeding, subordinate members give altruistic care to the pups and for the better of the community. The male has an anal gland to leave it’s scent mark on it’s territory.
Subordinates have a hard time reproducing successfully; for example, dominant females often commit infanticide of the litters of rival females and subordinates. As a result, during the breeding season, subordinate individuals could disperse to other packs in search of mates.
Breeding occurs throughout the year, with peaks during periods of heavy rainfall; a litter of three to seven pups is born after a gestation period of 60 to 70 days. Some subordinate meerkats will also destroy dominant members’ pups in order to strengthen the status of their offspring.
Emigrants may take days to gain entry into other packs, and they often face hostility from the members. Males are usually effective given time in entering established packs, and they often examine other packs’ burrow systems in search of breeding opportunities.
Diet of Meerkats
The meerkat is mainly an omnivore with insectivore traits, preying primarily on beetles and lepidopterans, but it also eats larvae, amphibians, arthropods (including scorpions), rodents, small birds (such as the southern anteater-chat), plants, and seeds.
Meerkats in captivity eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and kill small mammals by biting the backs of their skulls. They’ve also been seen eating Kalaharituber pfeilii, a desert truffle. Citron melons are often eaten by meerkats, who dig out roots and tubers for their water content.
Reproduction of Meerkats
Only the dominant male and female of a group usually breed. In a litter, three to seven pups are born. The pups are born blind and deaf, and they spend the first three to four weeks of their lives in their underground den. Females will fight for the right to breed which is usually the role of males in the animal kingdom.
Other members of the community assist in the treatment of the children. These volunteers look after the pups by babysitting, grooming, feeding, and protecting them, as well as teaching them foraging skills when they are old enough.
Conservation of Meerkats
The IUCN Red List classifies the meerkat as Least Concern. Low rainfall, which can result in the death of entire packs, is the only significant threat; populations appear to be stable.
Q & A About Meerkats
Is it possible for meerkats to kill you?
No meerkats cannot kill humans. Approximately one in every five meerkats (mostly infants) is killed by members of their own species.
Is it true that meerkats are friendly?
In captivity meerkats can be extremely playful and friendly with humans and like to hug zoo wardens.
Do meerkats have a distinct odor?
Meerkats excrete a sticky substance from under their tails that they use to mark their territories which is unpleasant to smell.
Which order do meerkats belong?
Meerkats belong in the order: Carnivora
To what family do meerkats belong?
Meerkats belong in the Family: Herpestidae