Here at Natural Selection, we rather like to think of ourselves as meerkat specialists, after all, it’s not every camp that can offer guests the opportunity to get up close and personal with a band of habituated meerkats as our Makgadikgadi properties can. So, in celebration of our furry friends, we thought we’d pull together a few of our favourite facts about these fascinating little folk and the lives they lead.
As cute and cuddly as they might appear, the innocent looking meerkat is in fact a finely tuned predator. Even more impressively, they feed on quite dangerous prey such as toxic millipedes and poisonous scorpions, using a variety of tactics to ensnare and consume them. They’re even immune to certain types of venom.
Their diet is really quite varied. In addition to the aforementioned hazardous delicacies, meerkats will also indulge on an array of insects, lizards, birds, and fruit. They’re pretty handy hunters and at the end of each of their fingers is a claw which they use to dig burrows, and to locate and immobilise prey.
It’s perfectly normal to see meerkats together in groups (the collective is a mob). These gregarious creatures sometimes live together in a community that comprises a number of different families, numbering up to 30. The sociable animals will sometimes even welcome visitors to our Makgadikgadi camps into their living arrangements, allowing the guests to sit amongst them, and will use them as a lookout post should the need occur! Meerkats have even been known to share burrows with species such as yellow mongoose and ground squirrels.
The most famous stance for meerkats to assume is undoubtedly their rather enchanting upright position. They’ll often stand up on their back legs, keeping watch across the landscape they call home. Impressively, the mothers are able to nurse their young whilst holding this position.
There’s another benefit to the stance. The meerkats have a patch on their bellies only sparsely covered by hair, with their black skin evident beneath, and standing upright allows this area to absorb heat after the chill of the desert night.
Meerkats are also known as suricates, and are part of the mongoose family. Scientific types might refer to them as suricata suricatta, and may also point out that they’re part of the herpestidae (mongoose) family, and are the sole members of the genus suricata.
These squirrel-sized characters tend to work together to get things done.
Generally a few will serve as the lookouts, keeping their eyes trained on the locale for animals that might prey on them, such as eagles, hawks and jackals. They’ll elicit an alarm call which will prompt the rest of the mob to hide themselves away from danger. This duty usually lasts for around an hour. With the sentries standing guard, the rest of the mob will be foraging for food, and babies will begin to forage from around a month of age, initially following and learning from an older member of the group.
When hunting these miniature carnivores communicate with one another through purring sounds. Their alarm call meanwhile is shrill and sharp, and the sentries make peeping sounds to signal that all is well. The alarm calls vary according to the predator that’s been spotted, and panic, recruitment and moving calls are all within their repertoires as well.
A mob will make use of a variety of different burrows, and each is an intricate system of runs and rooms, designed to incorporate a natural air conditioning system to keep the meerkats cool. It’s to these burrows that the group will dash if the sentries give an alarm call, and also within them that the females give birth to their young.