Meerkat

Meerkat

[ Suricata suricatta ]

Quick Facts

BODY LENGTH: 10 to 14 inches
TAIL LENGTH: 7 to 10 inches
WEIGHT:

1.4 to 2 pounds

WILD DIET: insects, beetles, beetle and butterfly larvae, spiders, centipedes, scorpions, bird and reptile eggs, mice, small birds, lizards, snails, and plants
ZOO DIET: cat food, dry dog food, vegetables, crickets, mealworms, ribs, mice, and fish
DISTRIBUTION: South Africa, Angola, Namibia, and southern Botswana
HABITAT: dry areas, including deserts, with sandy or hard and even stony ground, avoiding forests and mountains

 

High Society

They're not cats
Despite their feline-sounding name, meerkats are not cats. Meerkats are a kind of mongoose, and are members of the most numerous group of carnivores, the viverrids. Although they're a member of a big group, meerkats are distinctive mongooses. They have black eye patches and dark brown stripes down the back. Skinny legs support a slender body that sports a coarse coat of grizzled gray or tan fur. The tip of the thin tail is black, as are their small ears. Meerkats have a roundish forehead and a pointed face. Males and females look alike.

Greater than the sum of their parts
Meerkats are very social animals. The bonds that hold them together are very strong, because there are many benefits to living in a group. Finding food and protection are two big reasons for these tiny creatures to live together. Alone, their chances of survival would be much less.

Meerkats live in colonies made up of different families, and there may be 30 animals in a colony. As in all societies, communication is key to keeping the group together and strong. While they’re looking for food, adult meerkats make an almost constant twittering "contact call." They also scent-mark their territory, which provides information about sex and sexual receptivity of animals in the group, and keeps other meerkat colonies away.

Sentry duty
When it comes to looking out for danger, few creatures are as vigilant as meerkats. Meerkats are active during the day, spending most of the time looking for food. During this time they are vulnerable to predators, such as birds of prey, snakes, monitor lizards, and any other large carnivore. To protect the colony, one meerkat usually has sentry duty while the others hunt. The sentry takes up a position high on a rock or log. He or she sits erect, even standing sometimes, sniffing the wind and scanning the area for danger. If this look-out detects trouble, it lets out one of several alarm calls. One call means, "Danger is imminent, run for cover!" A different call means, "Danger might be nearby, so be on guard."

Defense by harassment
When a predator threatens the colony, meerkats have several ways of defending themselves. They may overwhelm their antagonist with a defensive display---bristled fur, an erect tail and stiff legs, plus an arched back, all make the meerkats look large and menacing. Such a display by the whole colony is often enough to scare off a snake or lizard. If the display doesn't work, meerkats can defend themselves by rolling onto their backs and holding their teeth and claws ready for an attack.

Rain = baby meerkats
Meerkats are opportunistic breeders. In the wild, they breed during the wet months, when resources are most plentiful. In captivity, meerkats can have offspring any time of the year because food and water are constantly available.

Meerkcat pups are born in burrows that the adults build. The pups are blind and sparsely furred. They open their eyes at about two weeks and begin to eat solid food at about two months of age. Group members, other than the mother, may regurgitate solid food for the pups to eat.

Get Involved

Conservation Fund of the Chicago Zoological Society