Scientific Name: Suricata suricatta
Meerkats get their name from Afrikaans, a language derived from Dutch. The English translation of the word is “marsh cat” or “lake cat,” even though these fuzzy little mammals don’t live near lakes or marshes, nor are they cats. They’re actually a member of the mongoose family.
STATUS: Lower risk.
HABITAT: Arid and semi-arid regions of southern Africa. In rocky areas they live in crevices, but they’re mostly found in complex systems of burrows that they either dig themselves or acquire from and share with African ground squirrels or yellow mongooses. Their burrow systems have multiple levels with several openings. A colony may have up to five separate burrow systems scattered over many miles. Burrows are usually grass lined and, like those utilized by prairie dogs, have a common latrine shared by all.
DIET: Meerkats are primarily insectivorous. They spend most of the day foraging and hunting near their burrows for insects, larvae, ground-nesting birds, eggs, centipedes, small rodents, reptiles, and scorpions. They get much of their water from tubers, roots, and fruit such as tsama melons. Meerkats’ keen sense of smell helps them locate underground prey, and they’ve been known to dig a foot deep to unearth beetle larvae.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Tannish grey fur with black stripes across the back. A meerkat’s body is approximately 10 to 14 inches long with an 8-inch dark-tipped tail. Females are often larger than the males. They have short legs and, unlike most mongooses, have 4 toes on each foot. The front feet have long non-retractable claws well-adapted for digging. Their small black ears can be folded back to keep dirt out. They have dark-skinned bellies with light fur, which acts as a solar panel to warm them as they sunbathe after cold desert nights. Dark circles around their eyes help to reduce the sun’s glare, as do horizontal pupils, which also give them a wider range of vision. Binocular and color vision help them spot birds of prey from a distance.
The Great Society
Meerkats live in matriarchal groups of 10 to 30 individuals called mobs or gangs. The mob is comprised of an alpha mating pair, their pups, and other adults. Each member has a special role. Non-alpha females will babysit pups, protecting them and even nursing them at times.
Sentries stand on a rock or termite mound on their hind legs, using their tail for stability, and scan the horizon and sky. If a predator such as a hawk, martial eagle or jackal is spotted they sound an alarm. A variety of alarm calls including barks, clucks or whistles may be used to indicate specific predators. When the alarm is sounded the meerkats run to the nearest burrow entrance called a bolt hole. After the danger has passed, the sentry is the first to emerge and check the area, letting the others know when it’s safe. Sentry duty is traded off to allow the sentries opportunity to forage.
Teachers or mentors teach weaned pups how to hunt, forage, and protect themselves. Each meerkat is responsible for finding their own food, but adults bring back food to the pups. While foraging, meerkats keep in contact with a soft murmuring sound. If they come in contact with a rival group they dig up the ground to create a dust cloud distraction or advance as a group in a series of mock attacks.
A meerkat’s life is not all work. They spend time grooming each other, playing, wrestling, and even racing. Some researchers have witnessed a “singing ceremony” that they compared to yodeling.