KINGDOM: Animalia (Animals)
PHYLUM: Chordata (Possessing a notochord)
CLASS: Mammalia (Mammals)
ORDER: Carnivora (Carnivores)
FAMILY: Herpestidae (Mongoose)
SUB-FAMILY: Herpestinae (Mongooses)
GENUS: Suricata (Meerkat)
SPECIES: Suricata suricatta (Meerkat)
Meerkats are endemic to Southern Africa. They inhabit portions of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
The meerkat is a small mongoose. Their fur is a yellow-brown colour, peppered with darker spots. The body and legs are slender and long, with a long thick tail. The head is rounded at the forehead tapering towards the nose. The small ears are crescent shaped.
Meerkats prefer areas of savannah and open plains and their distribution depends on soil type, with firm to hard soils being common living grounds.
The meerkat is mainly an insectivore (insect eater), but may also eat lizards, snakes, scorpions, spiders, eggs, plants, fungi, fruit, millipedes and small birds.
Meerkats are highly social animals and live in groups (called packs, mobs, or clans) of up to 50 individuals. These packs consist of up to 3 familial groups, with each familial group having one alpha pair and lots of helpers (who are either children or siblings of the alpha pair). Meerkats have a matriarchal society (females are dominant). A pack of meerkats will always have one “sentry” on guard to watch out for predators while the others forage for food.
The meerkat is socially monogamous (one male and one female forming an exclusive social pair bond for a season). The male of the alpha pair fathers most of the offspring born to the alpha female. Dominant females do their best to prevent subordinate females breeding and sexually mature females are driven out of their natal group. Subordinate meerkats will help rear the dominant female’s pups and females may even produce milk and suckle the pups.
After a gestation period of about 11 weeks, two to five pups are born. Their eyes open at about two weeks and they will start eating other food additionally to milk at about three weeks old. Pups are weaned at about 9 weeks old, and at about 2 months old, they start looking like adult meerkats. Meerkats are sexually mature at about 1 year old. They can live up to 15 years.
Meerkats are preyed on by various species, including hawks, eagles and jackals. If the sentry meerkat spots a predator, it will warn the rest of the pack by a special call, from which they can tell the urgency and whether the threat is on the ground or in the air.
Although there are currently no major threats to the meerkat, they have an important part in the ecological system of Southern Africa. They provide food for predators like jackals and eagles, and they curb pest infestation by eating insects.
Did you know?
- Meerkats are immune to venom of some scorpions and snakes
- They live in extensive tunnel-systems, complete with bedrooms and toilets
- A membrane covers and protects meerkats’ eyes while they dig
- Meerkats have an excellent sense of smell, and use this to locate food
- Meerkats have scent pouches below their tails and rub these pouches on rocks and plants to mark their territory