Range: Deserts and plains of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia; Kalahari Desert
Status: Common; neither threatened nor endangered
Meerkats are intelligent, adaptive, highly social relatives of the African mongoose. They live in familial groups called mobs, which are comprised of anywhere from five to thirty individuals. Their highly structured society incorporates teamwork as the core of their survival strategy, which is the key to their success.
A single breeding pair, called the alpha pair, is responsible for governing the mob and bearing offspring. Alpha pairs will change from time to time as well. Sometimes, if the group grows too large, mature members will venture off to start their own splinter mobs.
The mob’s members will occupy themselves with various roles while out and about. While the others hunt, dig and forage, the mob will keep a sentry or two on constant watch duty, so that any dangers or intrusions on the territory can be detected quickly and an alert sounded. If there are any youngsters around, the mob will leave them in the protective care of a babysitter.
Though only twelve inches tall (30.48cm), meerkats are rather sturdy creatures. Their muscular front and hind legs make quick work of moving mounds of dirt, which is done with their long, broad front claws. The ability to dig is essential, as meerkats live in underground burrows.
Meerkats have dark gray skin, and the fur around their eyes is thin so that the dark color of the skin below helps to absorb reflection from the desert sun. Essentially, built-in sunglasses. The fur on their chests and bellies is also thinner for the same reason. Deserts can get very cold at night, so in the morning when the mob basks in the sun, the dark underbelly helps to absorb heat.
Meerkats in the Media:
One of the most memorable times meerkats appeared in the media was when A Meerkat Family Saga aired on the Discovery Channel several years ago. The documentary told the heart-breaking story of one family’s struggle to survive.
It was so saddening that I almost regret recording it.
The sole survivor of the tragedy was Digger, a young playful male named for his strong fetish for digging.
Meerkats aired in the media several more times, including in Return to Meerkat Valley, a documentary starring Alain Degré and his wife. And, of course, meerkats went mainstream in Disney’s The Lion King, with Nathan Lane as the voice of Timon.
- Meerkats are capable of verbal arbitration; that is, they are capable of assigning meanings to specific calls, an ability originally thought to be exclusive to humans.
- Meerkats are immune to most venoms, including that of cobras
- In the wild, meerkats live to be anywhere from eight to ten years of age. And, in captivity, sometimes fifteen.
- The Spanish word for meerkat is suricata, while Germans call them erdmännchen, a word that, literally translated, means “ground men.”
- Though they are primarily insectavores, meerkats are capable of eating a wide variety of foods including fruites and even small mammals. Zoo meerkats are often fed a mixed diet of live prey (insects, mice) and dry dog food.
- Meerkats derive most of the water they need from the food they eat, as most desert animals have adapted to do.