Standing at only 30 cm (12 in.) tall, meerkats, also known as suricats, depend on group cooperation to survive in the Kalahari Desert. They live in groups of 20-50 extended family members in large underground tunnels.
These family groups, called gangs or mobs, are led by an alpha pair, with the female being the most dominant. Most of the group members are either children or siblings of the alpha pair.
The dominant couple (and subordinate pairs) will produce two to four pups a year. Other group members will babysit the pups, even feeding them milk. Because survival of the pups is vital to sustaining their social unit, meerkats have been known to risk their lives trying to protect the young.
One of the most important roles a meerkat plays is that of the sentry, or watch guard. One meerkat will stand on its hind legs, propped up by its tail, and act as a lookout while the rest of the mob is outside looking for food and frolicking in the sun. The lookout scans the area for predators, including hawks, eagles, snakes and jackals. If a predator is spotted, the guard lets out a distinctive bark. At the sound of the warning bark, everyone sprints to the nearest tunnel entrance. The sentry is the first to emerge from the burrow to check if the coast is clear.
Meerkats are specially adapted to living in the harsh desert environment. Dark patches around their eyes help them be effective lookouts by reducing the glare of the sun, much like a baseball player who paints dark lines beneath his eyes. Their eyes also allow them to take in a wide angle view of the scene. This helps prevent predators from gaining an advantage by sneaking up.
Meerkats also possess special adaptations to help them burrow. Their eyes have a clear protective membrane that shields them from dirt while digging. Their ears also close tightly to keep dirt out.
Meerkats have light brown fur with a gray and brown tint to it with stripes on their back. Their dark-skinned bellies are covered with only a thin layer of fur, allowing the meerkats warm themselves by lying face up in the sun.
Eating both plants and animals, meerkats are omnivores. Their diet mostly consists of insects, which they sniff out using their enhanced sense of smell. They also eat small rodents, fruit, birds, eggs, lizards, and even poisonous scorpions. They can catch a scorpion and pull off its deadly stinger in the blink of an eye. Because they have very little fat to store energy, meerkats forage and hunt every day.
The meerkat is not currently endangered and is considered at lower risk of becoming endangered. That said, by no means should they be disregarded; they play an important part in maintaining ecological harmony in the desert. They provide food for predators like jackals and eagles, and they curb pest infestation by eating insects.
What You Can Do to Help
You can help meerkats by spreading awareness of their vital role in the Kalahari’s ecological balance. You can also support the Meerkat Magic Conservation Project, which uses funds raised through eco-tourism to subsidize landowners and farmers. In this way, development and farming are decreased, allowing for increased preservation of meerkat habitat.
- Fellow Earthlings Wildlife Center
- How Stuff Works – Meerkats
- National Geographic’s Meerkat Page