The meerkat or suricate is a small mammal and a member of the mongoose family. It inhabits all parts of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. A group of meerkats is called a “mob” or “gang”.
The meerkat is a small diurnal mongoose whose weight averages approximately 1.61 lb (731 g) for males and 1.58 lb (720 g) for females. Its long and slender body and limbs give it a body length of 10 to 14 in (25 to 35 cm) and an added tail length of 7 to 10 in (17 to 25 cm). Its tail is not bushy like all other mongoose species, but is rather long and thin and tapers to a black or reddish colored pointed tip. The meerkat uses its tail to balance when standing vertical. Its face also tapers, coming to a point at the nose, which is brown. The eyes always have black patches surrounding them that help deflect the sun’s glare. The meerkat has small, black, crescent-shaped ears that have the ability to close when digging to prevent sand from entering.
They have four toes on each foot and long, slender limbs. The coat is usually fawn-colored peppered with gray, tan, or brown with a silver tint. They have short, parallel stripes across their backs, extending from the base of the tail to the shoulders. The patterns of stripes are unique to each animal. The underside of the meerkat has no markings. The belly has a patch that is only sparsely covered with hair and shows the black skin underneath. The meerkat uses this area to absorb heat standing on its rear legs, usually early in the morning after cold desert nights.
Meerkats are primarily insectivores, but also eat lizards, snakes, spiders, plants, eggs and small mammals. Like all mongoose species, they are immune to many types of venom. They can eat scorpions (including the stinger) and some snakes, without fear of illness, poison or death. They have no excess body fat stores, so foraging for food is a daily need. Meerkats are fairly small mammals weighing about 2 lb. Length from the head to the tip of the tail is about 20 inches with the tail itself is about 8 inches long. Meerkats’ noses protrude from their faces and at are 2 to 3 inches long. Like felines, meerkats have binocular vision, a large peripheral range, depth perception, and eyes that sit on the front of their faces. They have ears that stick out from the side of their heads for better hearing.
Meerkats become sexually mature at about one year of age. They have on average, three young per litter. Wild meerkats have up to three litters per year. Meerkats can reproduce any time of the year but most births occur in the warmer seasons.
Meerkats are burrowing animals, living in large underground networks with multiple entrances that they leave only during the day. They are very social, living in colonies of up to about 30. Animals in the same group often groom each other to strengthen social bonds. The alpha pair often scent-mark subordinates of the group to express their authority, and the subordinates grooming the alphas and licking their faces usually follow this. This behavior is also usually practiced when group members are reunited after a short period apart. Most meerkats in a group are all siblings and offspring of the alpha pair.
Meerkats demonstrate altruistic behavior within their colonies. There are one or more meerkats that stand lookout while others are foraging or playing, to warn them of approaching dangers. When a predator is spotted, the meerkat performing as sentry gives a warning bark. The other members of the gang will run and hide in one of the many boltholes they have spread across their territory. The sentry meerkat is the first to reappear from the burrow and search for predators, constantly barking to keep the others underground. If there is no threat, the sentry meerkat stops barking and the others feel safe to emerge.
Meerkats also baby-sit the young in the group. Females that have never produced offspring of their own often lactate to feed the alpha pair’s young, while the alpha female is away with the rest of the group. They also protect the young from threats, often endangering their own lives. On warning of danger, the babysitter takes the young underground to safety and is prepared to defend them if the danger follows. If retreating underground is not possible, she collects all young together and lies on top of them.
Meerkats are also known to share their burrow with the red meerkat, yellow mongoose and ground squirrel. These are species that do not compete for resources.
Meerkats are the first non-human mammal species seen actively teaching their young. Children of most species learn solely by observing adults. Meerkat adults educate children how to eat a venomous scorpion. They will remove the stinger and help the pup learn how to handle the creature.
Despite this altruistic behavior, meerkats sometimes kill young members of their group. Subordinate meerkats have been seen killing the offspring of more senior members in order to advance their own offspring’s’ positions.
Meerkats have been known to engage in social activities, including what appear to be wrestling matches and foot races.
It has recently been noted that meerkat calls may carry specific meanings. They have specific calls alerting to the approach of snakes, birds of prey, or other predators. How these calls work is not clear.