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Scientific Name:
Suricata suricatta

Conservation Status:
Lower risk, least concern

Where to see them:
Meerkat habitat, African Plains

Fun Facts:

Meerkats are immune to scorpion venom, and they can withstand up to six times the snake venom that would kill a rabbit.

As adaptations to their sandy habitat, meerkats can close their ears to keep the sand out and have a nictitating membrane (third eyelid) to protect their eyes.

The meerkat on sentinel duty is constantly vocalizing to the rest of the group. The sentinel also uses alarm calls to alert the group of imminent danger; there is a unique alarm call for each type of predator (bird, snake or another group of meerkats).

Meerkat

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Size
Body length is about 11 inches (29 centimeters). Weight is approximately 900 grams, or just under 2 pounds. There is no sexual dimorphism, although females are generally slightly larger than males.

Range
Meerkats are found throughout the desert and semi-desert regions of southern Africa. Countries include Angola, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa.  

Habitat
Meerkats live in desert and semi-desert conditions. Temperatures can reach over 100°F during the day.  

Lifestyle
Meerkats are burrowing animals, and often make homes out of abandoned termite mounds or burrows dug by other animals. Meerkats are strictly diurnal; they emerge from their burrows and warm their bodies after sunrise, leave the burrow to forage all day and return to the burrows before sunset. They tend to nap in the hottest part of the day, and then continue foraging.

Meerkats live in a matriarchal society, which means that the dominant female is the leader of the group. She leads the group on foraging trips, to find new burrows and in territory disputes with other meerkat groups. There is a hierarchy within the sexes but it does not cross the genders (i.e., the dominant female tends to discipline the females in the group and the dominant male does the same thing for group males). Status tends to increase with age. Meerkat groups usually consist of extended family members and can range in numbers from 10 to 30.

Meerkat life is dependent on the cooperative behaviors within the group:

 

  • Sentinel: Watches for danger. All group members except kittens can take turns, but usually the older subordinate males will spend the most time as sentinel.
  • Babysitters: Stay with the kittens in the den. Usually the job of siblings, but all members of the group can perform this task, except the dominant female.
  • Wet nurse: Ousted pregnant females who have lost their offspring and then return and can nurse the dominant female’s kittens.

All meerkats participate in play behaviors. All group members participate in the rearing of the young. This includes babysitting, feeding kittens small insects when they are weaned and teaching them to catch prey once they are old enough. Adults also carry the young during burrow moves or foraging trip if they cannot keep up. Group members groom each other to keep the group free of parasites and to strengthen family bonds.

Food
A meerkat’s diet consists mostly of insects, grubs, bird eggs, small reptiles and the occasional scorpion. Meerkats drink very little water since they get most of the fluids they need from food items. Sometimes meerkats will eat roots and tubers for extra water.

Life Cycle    
Meerkat breeding season is usually between October and June, with births between January and March.

The alpha male and female are the dominant breeders, but other meerkats in the group may breed as well. A dominant female may kill kittens that are born to subordinate females to increase the chances of her own kittens’ survival.

Meerkat gestation is 70 days (10-11 weeks). Females give birth to one to three litters a year, with three to seven kittens per litter.

Meerkat kittens’ eyes and ears are closed until about 10 days of age. The kittens emerge from the burrow at 2-3 weeks of age. At 4 weeks, the kittens go on foraging trips with the group, and they are weaned by 9 weeks of age.

All group members help to rear the young. The mother is the primary source of milk. Other mature females can lactate, even if they have never been pregnant, to provide young with milk while their mother is away.

Meerkats reach sexual maturity at 1-2 years of age. Males voluntarily leave the group between 18 months to 3 years of age, usually when they become sexually mature. They often leave the family group with a few of their brothers and form a new group with unrelated females, or take over an existing group by ousting the dominant male assume control if the dominant male has died.

Females do not typically leave their family groups voluntarily. Dominant females will evict subordinate females to eliminate competition, especially if the subordinates are pregnant.  Sometimes evicted females are allowed back into the family group, but they may also form new groups.

Some of My Neighbors (IN THE WILD)
Black-backed jackals, sidewinders, vipers, barking geckos, hyenas, pangolins

Population Status & Threats

  • Predators: snakes, birds of prey, jackals
  • Disease (tuberculosis is common among wild populations)
  • Attacks from other meerkats (including infanticide)
  • Human-caused threats: habitat loss, pet trade and getting hit by cars