Meerkats are a species of African mongoose known for their social nature. These furry creatures live in groups of 30 over a range of 2 square miles and dig a network of caves to hide from both predators and extreme heat from the sun.
The meerkat is an intelligent animal, communicating with each other using a wide range of calls and recognizing each other easily.
Length: 9.4–13.8 in (24–35 cm) tall, measuring from their head up to the rump
Weight: 1.4–2.1 lb (0.62–0.97 kg)
Body and Coloration: Their head is broad, with large eyes and a pointed snout. Meerkats have a set of long legs and a long, thin tail.
Their soft coats range from light grey to yellowish-brown, with alternating poorly defined light and dark bands on the back. Light at the base, the guard hairs have two dark rings tipped with black or silvery-white; several strands are aligned together to give the coat pattern. These hairs are typically between 0.59 to 0.79 inches. Its head is primarily white, and the underparts are covered sparsely with dark reddish-brown fur, with the dark skin underneath showing.
It resides in southwestern Botswana, western and southern parts of Namibia, and northern and western regions of South Africa. The meerkat’s range may extend to south-western Angola as well.
They live in open, dry areas, including grasslands, savannas, and deserts.
Omnivorous in nature, the meerkat diet consists of beetles, centipede larvae, lizards, scorpions, spiders, small snakes, and termites as well as plant material like fruits, roots, and tubers.
They have an immunity to venom, lowering the risk of poisoning while eating snakes and scorpions.
Meerkats live for 5-15 years in the wild, and over 20 years in captivity.
The meerkat lives in gangs or mobs, with each member fulfilling a particular role. For instance, when one meerkat acts as a babysitter while another will be a sentry, keeping an eye out for threats while standing up on their hind legs.
These social mongoose forages for 5-8 hours a day in groups, each maintaining a distance of one to five feet from the other, communicating through varied vocalizations.
Meerkats have a wide range of calls, including close calls used while foraging and alarm calls to warn the approach of a predator. Some of the common sounds made by them include a purr when satisfied, chatter if nervous, or squeal, bark or whistle upon sensing danger.
They live in burrows that have up to 15 openings for quick escapes and even protecting themselves from high temperatures during the day. One could even spot several meerkats huddling outside their burrow for warmth after a day’s foraging or even engage in grooming each other.
If meerkats encounter a predator, they will either try to kick dirt into the latter’s eyes or the entire mob will try to gang up on them to drive them off.
These animals sleep for 10-12 hours a day upon entering the burrow early in the evening.
They are able to distinguish each other, either through scent or hearing each other’s voices.
Meerkats are highly intelligent and tend to be curious. They can appear bold and aggressive at times.
Meerkats are threatened by raptors such as bateleurs, martial eagles, pale chanting goshawks, and tawny eagles who swoop down on them from the air. Also, bat-eared foxes, black-backed jackals, and Cape foxes prey on them as well.
Their eyes help them adapt to desert life quite well. The meerkats have long horizontal pupils assisting these mongooses in acquiring a better vision without moving their heads around. Their eyes also possess a nictitating membrane that helps remove the sand from their eyes during digging. Moreover, the black patches around their eyes provide protection from the sun’s glare, giving them better vision when it is too bright outside.
The teeth of meerkats are strong enough to crush the exoskeleton of insects.
In addition to their thin fur and dark skin on their stomach allowing them to control their body temperature, they can also lie on their backs to quickly warm themselves with sunlight or lie down on their bellies over a cool rock when it becomes too hot.
Their curved claws are used for digging underground burrows and for prey. They also help them to climb trees occasionally.
Mating and Reproduction
Meerkats mate during the warm, rainy season, i.e., from August to March, when food is most abundant, but they have been known to breed throughout the year. Males fight females to initiate mating, gripping her around the middle to hold their position. There is usually a single breeding pair in each meerkat gang.
After two months, the females give birth to 3-7 pups. They stay inside the caves for 16 days, after which they emerge, and they begin to forage with the adults in around 26 days. There are helpers in the mob who take care of the young while the parents perform other duties. The fathers protect the mob while the mothers go out to forage. At 12 weeks, the juveniles become capable of foraging themselves. Meerkats reach sexual maturity when they are a year old.
As per the IUCN, the meerkat is considered “Least Concern” or “LC”.
Meerkats have appeared in popular culture, most notably the character Timon in The Lion King movies and the Animal Planet program Meerkat Manor.
As they are very social animals, it is unwise to keep meerkats as pets. If one were to raise a meerkat, it would involve staying close to it all times lest it feel abandoned.