A slender, vigilant and gregarious member of the mongoose family, the meerkat (Suricata suricatta) is rarely seen alone. They are found throughout the semi-deserts of Southern Africa where the live in groups (known as ‘mobs’ or ‘gangs’) of up to 50 strong. Although they may only reach 30cm tall, their size does not dismiss their determined and resilient nature. Immune to some of the most harmful toxins, these bold burrowers can take on venomous snakes and scorpions without fear.
Aside from their courage, meerkats also possess an endearing and selfless family spirit. They work together as one efficient and productive operation; each member has a role to play. Some will babysit whilst others forage. Some will maintain the burrows whilst others stand sentry and watch for predators. If a lookout, standing on its hind legs, spots a predator, it will let out a distinctive bark. At the sound of this thundering siren, everyone scatters, bolting their way to the nearest burrow entrance.
This guarding system is especially important for meerkats who have a whole host of eager predators. Eagles, hawks and jackals are their primary threats. However, a meerkat can spot an eagle in flight more than one thousand feet away, giving them plenty of time to find safety. Planes – appearing like huge birds from below – will also send younger meerkats into panic.
Meerkats are mainly insectivores, but will eat pretty much anything they can get their little hands on. This includes lizards, small mammals, eggs, plants and fungi. With their pointed nose, long claws, protective eye membrane and a body low to the ground, meerkats are expert foragers. They will scan their sandy habitat like sniffer dogs, digging up and consuming any insects they find. A meerkat has the ability to dig through a quantity of sand equal to its own weight in just seconds.
These dust-coloured mammals live in complex and extensive burrows. The Kalahari desert can reach temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius in the summer months, so these underground burrows provide a cool and serene haven from the relentless African sun. Females give birth to 2-4 pups each year in their burrows. Once born, all members of the mob help to raise the young. Siblings will play with them, teaching them vital skills of agility and alertness.
On their own, meerkats may not seem so remarkable, but when they come together, they form a formidable and fierce force. Fighting as a mob, meerkats can even drive away jackals.
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.