Temporal range: 
|A mob of meerkats in Tswalu Kalahari Reserve|
Range of the meerkat
The meerkat (Suricata suricatta) or suricate is a small
Meerkats are highly
They live in rock crevices in stony, often calcareous areas, and in large burrow systems in plains. The burrow systems, typically 5 m (16 ft) in diameter with around 15 openings, are large underground networks consisting of two to three levels of tunnels. These tunnels are around 7.5 cm (3.0 in) high at the top and wider below, and extend up to 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) into the ground. Burrows have moderated internal temperatures and provide a comfortable microclimate that protects meerkats in harsh weather and at extreme temperatures.
Meerkats are active during the day, mostly in the early morning and late afternoon; they remain continually alert and retreat to burrows when sensing danger. They use a broad variety of calls to communicate among one another for different purposes, for example to raise an alarm on sighting a
Commonly living in arid, open habitats with little
The word 'meerkat' derives from the
- S. s. suricatta (Schreber, 1776) occurs in southern Namibia, southern Botswana, and South Africa.
- S. s. majoriae Bradfield, 1936 occurs in central and northwestern Namibia.
- S. s. iona Crawford-Cabral, 1971 occurs in southwestern Angola.
Phylogeny and evolution
Meerkat fossils dating back to 2.59 to 0.01 million years ago have been excavated in various locations in South Africa.
The meerkat is a small
The meerkat has 36 teeth with the
The meerkat has a specialised
Ecology and behaviour
The meerkat is a social mammal, forming packs of two to 30 individuals each comprising nearly equal numbers of either sex and multiple family units of pairs and their offspring. Members of a pack take turns at jobs such as looking after pups and keeping a lookout for predators.
Packs live in rock crevices in stony areas and in large burrow systems in plains. A pack generally occupies a
Meerkats are highly vigilant, and frequently survey their surroundings by turning their heads side to side; some individuals always stand sentry and look out for danger. Vocal communication is used frequently in different contexts; for instance repetitive, high-pitched barks are used to warn others of predators nearby. They will generally retreat to their burrows for safety, where they will remain until the danger is gone. They stick their heads out of burrows to check the area outside, still barking. Mobs of meerkats fiercely attack snakes that may come near them. Raptors such as bateleurs, martial eagles, tawny eagles, and pale chanting goshawks are major aerial predators; on the ground, meerkats may be threatened by bat-eared foxes, black-backed jackals, and Cape foxes.
Encounters between members of different packs are highly aggressive, leading to severe injuries and often deaths; 19% of meerkats die by conspecific violence, which is the highest recorded percentage among mammals.
Meerkat burrows are typically 5 m (16 ft) in diameter with around 15 openings, though one of dimensions 25 by 32 m (82 by 105 ft) with as many as 90 holes has been reported. These large underground networks comprise two to three levels of tunnels up to 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) into the ground; the tunnels, around 7.5 cm (3.0 in) high at the top, become broader after descending around a metre. The entrances, 15 cm (5.9 in) in diameter, are created by digging at an angle of 40 degrees to the surface; the soil accumulated as a result can slightly increase the height of burrow sites. 'Boltholes' are used for a quick escape if dangers are detected. While constructing or renovating burrows meerkats will line up to form a continuous head-to-tail chain, break the soil into crumbs with their foreclaws, scoop it out with their forepaws joined and throw it behind them between their hindlegs.
Outside temperatures are not reflected at once within burrows; instead there is usually an eight-hour lag which creates a temperature gradient in warrens, so that burrows are coolest in daytime and warmest at night. Temperatures inside burrows typically vary between 21 and 39 °C (70 and 102 °F) in summer and −4 and 26 °C (25 and 79 °F) in winter; temperatures at greater depths vary to a much lesser extent, with summer temperatures around 22.6 to 23.2 °C (72.7 to 73.8 °F) and winter temperatures around 10 to 10.8 °C (50.0 to 51.4 °F). This reduces the need for meerkats to thermoregulate individually by providing a comfortable microclimate within burrows; moreover, burrowing protects meerkats in harsh weather and at extreme temperatures. Consequently, meerkats spend considerable time in burrows; they are active mainly during the day and return to burrows after dark and often to escape the heat of the afternoon. Activity peaks during the early morning and late afternoon. Meerkats huddle together to sleep in compact groups, sunbathe and recline on warm rocks or damp soil to adjust their body temperatures.
Meerkats tend to occupy the burrows of other small mammals more than constructing them on their own; they generally share burrows with
Meerkats have a broad vocal repertoire that they use to communicate among one another in several contexts; many of these calls may be combined by repetition of the same call or mixing different sounds. A study recorded 12 different types of call combinations used in different situations such as guarding against predators, caring for young, digging, sunbathing, huddling together and aggression.
Short-range 'close calls' are produced while foraging and after scanning the vicinity for predators.
This indicates that meerkats are able to perceive the nature of the risk and the degree of urgency from the acoustics of a call, transmit it and respond accordingly. For instance, upon hearing a terrestrial predator alarm call, meerkats are most likely to scan the area and move towards the source of the call, while an aerial predator alarm call would most likely cause them to crouch down. A recruitment call would cause receivers to raise their tails (and often their hair) and move slowly towards the source.
The complexity of calls produced by different mongooses varies by their social structure and ecology. For instance eusocial mongooses such as meerkats and banded mongooses use calls in a greater variety of contexts than do the solitary slender mongooses. Moreover, meerkats have more call types than do banded mongooses. Meerkat calls carry information to identify the signaling individual or pack, but meerkats do not appear to differentiate between calls from different sources. The calls of banded mongooses also carry a 'vocal signature' to identify the caller.
The meerkat is primarily an insectivore, feeding heavily on
Mongooses spend nearly five to eight hours foraging every day. Like other social mongooses, meerkats in a pack will disperse within 5 m (16 ft) of one another and browse systematically in areas within their home range without losing visual or vocal contact. Some individuals stand sentry while the rest are busy foraging. Meerkats return to an area only after a week of the last visit so that the food supply is replenished sufficiently. They hunt by scent, and often dig out soil or turn over stones to uncover hidden prey. Meerkats typically do not give chase to their prey, though they may pursue geckos and lizards over several metres. Food intake is typically low during winter.
Meerkats breed throughout the year with seasonal peaks, typically during months of heavy rainfall; for instance, maximum births occur from January to March in the southern Kalahari. Generally only dominant individuals breed, though subordinate members can also mate in highly productive years. Females become
After a gestation of 60 to 70 days, a litter of three to seven pups is born. Pups weigh around 100 g (3.5 oz) in the first few days of birth; the average growth rate for the first three months is 4.5 g (0.16 oz) per day, typically the fastest in the first month. A 2019 study showed that growth and survival rates of pups might decrease with increase in temperature.
Infants make continuous sounds that resemble bird-like tweets, that change to a shrill contact call as they grow older. Young pups are kept securely in a den, from where they emerge after around 16 days, and start foraging with adults by 26 days. The nonbreeding members of the pack help substantially with juvenile care, for instance they feed the pups and huddle with them for warmth. A study showed that nearly half of the litters of dominant females, especially those born later in the breeding season were nursed by subordinate females, mostly those that were or recently had been pregnant.
Sex biases have been observed in feeding; for instance, female helpers feed female pups more than male pups unlike male helpers who feed both equally. This is possibly because the survival of female pups is more beneficial to female helpers as females are more likely to remain in their natal pack. Some helpers contribute to all activities more than others, though none of them might be specialised in any of them. Sometimes helpers favour their own needs over those of pups and decide not to feed them; this behaviour, known as "false-feeding", is more common when the prey is more valued by the meerkat.
The father remains on guard and protects his offspring, while the mother spends a lot of time foraging to produce enough milk for her young. Mothers give out shrill, repetitive calls to ensure their pups follow them and remain close together. Unable to forage themselves, young pups vocalise often seeking food from their carers. Like many species, meerkat pups learn by observing and mimicking adult behaviour, though adults also engage in active instruction. For example, meerkat adults teach their pups how to eat a venomous scorpion by removing the stinger and showing the pups how to handle the creature. The mother runs around with prey in her mouth, prompting her pups to catch it. Pups become independent enough to forage at around 12 weeks of age. Meerkats are estimated to survive for five to 15 years in the wild; the maximum lifespan recorded in captivity is 20.6 years.
Females appear to be able to discriminate the odour of their kin from that of others.
Distribution and habitat
The meerkat occurs in southwestern Botswana, western and southern Namibia, northern and western South Africa; the range barely extends into southwestern Angola.
Threats and conservation
The meerkat is listed as
Meerkats occur in several protected areas such as the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and the Makgadikgadi Pan. The Kalahari Meerkat Project, founded by Tim Clutton-Brock, is a long-term research project run by four different research groups that focuses on understanding cooperative behaviour in meerkats. It began in the Gemsbok National Park but was shifted to the Kuruman River Reserve in 1993.
Meerkats are generally tame animals.
Meerkats have been widely portrayed in movies, television and other media. A popular example is Timon from the Lion King franchise, who is an anthropomorphic meerkat. Meerkat Manor (2005–2008), a television programme produced by Oxford Scientific Films that was aired on Animal Planet, focused on groups of meerkats in the Kalahari that were being studied in the Kalahari Meerkat Project. Meerkats populated an acidic floating island in the 2012 film Life of Pi.
- The Meerkats, a 2008 documentary feature film
- Compare the Meerkat
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