- Scientific name: Suricata suricatta
- Distribution: Southern Africa
- Life Span: 10 - 12 years
- Height (standing): 30cm
- Length (including tail): 50cm
WHAT'S IN A NAME
Also known as the suricate, the name meerkat is Afrikaans. The English translation is "marsh cat", although they do not live near marshes and they are not cats. In fact, meerkats are members of the mongoose family and inhabit the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa.
They are social animals and live in colonies of up to forty individuals. These may consist of several family groups and are known as "gangs".
THE HOME RANGE
The gangs' home range can be extensive and may contain several warrens ranging in size from simple burrows to a huge labyrinth with more than fifty entrances. Meerkats sometimes share their burrows with ground squirrels and yellow mongooses. Competition for food is not a problem as the squirrels' diet is entirely different, and yellow mongooses forage much further away from the burrow and feed more on small mammals than insects.
Meerkats are mainly insectivores (insect eaters), turning rocks over or digging for beetles, grubs, termites, spiders and other hidden invertebrates. They also eat snakes and lizards, and will even tackle scorpions, biting off the poisonous sting and eating the rest. Occasionally they will eat small mammals they come across with a well-aimed bite to the back of the neck.
The social structure of a gang of meerkats is divided into several important tasks. Its success as a colony is dependant on each adult carrying out the task at which it is most talented, so teamwork is essential.
The tasks: ALPHA MALE and ALPHA FEMALE: they are not the "King and Queen" of the gang. In fact there is little hierarchy within the group. They are the individuals who see to most of the reproduction. The females will produce litter after litter throughout the season, each litter consisting of about three babies, called pups.
BABYSITTERS: - stay close to the burrows and protect the pups while their parents are away hunting for food.
HUNTERS: - hunt together in teams and share their prey with the other members of the gang.
TEACHERS: - show the pups how to hunt and how to survive.
GUARDIANS: - stand on their hind legs watching for predators such as birds of prey, jackals and hyenas.