Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) inhabit portions of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, extending from the south west arid biotic zone and eastward into neighboring southern savanna and grassland areas (van Staaden, 1994). These areas include the majority of the southern tip of Africa up to about 17 degrees South latitude.
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
S. suricatta is a small herpestid with males averaging 731 grams and females 720 grams. The body and legs of these animals are long and slender, with head and body length between 250 and 350 mm. The tail is thin and tapering to a point, and adds 175-250 mm to the total length of the animal. It is not bushy like many mongoose species.
The face is also tapered, coming to a point at the nose and rounded at the forehead. The ears are small and crescent-shaped. The color of the coat varies geographically. In the southern portion of their range, pelage color is darker, with lighter pelage coloration in the more arid regions, following Gloger's rule. Generally, the color of the coat is peppered gray, tan, or brown with a silver tint. The nose is brown. The ventral parts of the body are only sparsely covered with hair. The fore claws are enlarged for digging and the tail is yellowish tan in color with a distinctive black tip. In addition, there are distinctive dark patches around the eyes. Dark horizontal bands run across the dorsal parts of the body except the head and tail.
The skull exhibits large eye sockets, no sagittal crest, thin zygomatic arch, and a coronoid process of medium height. The dental formula is 3/3 1/1 3/3 2/2 = 36. The incisors curve slightly and the cheek teeth have high, pointed cusps
(van Staaden, 1994; Nowak, 1999).
Average mass: 720-731 g.
Range length: 425 to 600 mm.
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry
Average mass: 776 g.
Average basal metabolic rate: 1.729 W.
Meerkats inhabit the most open and arid country of any mongoose species. They are found in areas of savannah and open plains and their distribution depends on soil type, with firm to hard soils being common living grounds (Estes, 1991; van Staaden, 1994).
Habitat Regions: tropical
Terrestrial Biomes: desert or dune
Habitat and Ecology
Meerkats are mainly insectivorous, but will take small vertebrates, eggs, and plant matter. They forage regularly for these food items, digging in soil and grass and overturning rocks. Their animal diet consists of 82% insects, 7% arachnids, 3% centipedes, 3% millipedes, 2% reptiles, and 2% birds. Captive meerkats will prey readily upon small mammals (van Staaden, 1994).
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles; insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods
Plant Foods: leaves
Primary Diet: carnivore (Insectivore )
Meerkats are an important link in the food web. They provide food for predators. They also take many invertebrates, probably acting as a control on their own prey populations.
Predators include various avian and mammalian carnivores, such as hawks and eagles (particularly the Martial Eagle) and jackals.
S. suricatta shows a variety of anti-predator behaviors. These behaviors include alarm calling, maintaining an alert stance by propping the body into an upright position, running for cover, defensive threats, mobbing an enemy, self defense, and covering the young.
In defensive threats and mobbing, meerkats appear larger than they actually are. An individual will arch its back, standing as tall as possible on all four legs, with hair and tail erect, and its head lowered. At the same time, it will rock back and forth, growl, hiss, and spit in an attempt to intimidate its enemy. Mobbing requires a group of meerkats all giving defensive threats at the same time. If a predator approaches in spite of these bluffs, a meerkat will lie on its back with teeth and claws fully visible, protecting the back of its neck.
For aerial predators, meerkats will most often flee to a burrow if an attack seems forthcoming. If surprised, however, adults will cover their offspring with their own bodies (Estes, 1991).
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
- South Africa
- southern parts of Angola
They inhabit arid regions, in particular the Kalahari Desert, and are well adapted to an environment with little rainfall or water. All of the water they need is obtained from their diet.
They are mainly insectivorous, but have a varied diet which frequently consists of prey such as:
- beetles and their larvae
- millipedes, caterpillars and grubs
- grasshoppers and crickets
- geckos and small lizards
- skinks and burrowing skinks
- spiders, scorpions and solifuges
- other insects where available
In the breeding season, young males frequently break away from their group and create ‘roving parties’ where they will enter other territories for chances of mating with females in other groups. These coalitions can last from a few hours to a few days and can sometimes lead to the formation of new meerkat mobs if females from other groups join them.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: tactile ; chemical
The dominant female is the main breeding female of meerkat groups, but subordinate females do sometimes breed and their success is dependant on the breeding stage of the dominant female. In some cases, pregnant subordinate females are driven from the group by aggressive behaviour from the dominant female, while in other cases the subordinate can be so vigorously attacked that the pups are aborted. If a subordinate does give birth, the pups are at risk of infanticide if the dominant is also about to give birth, but in some cases they do survive. The gestation period is around 70 days (Hodge et al, 2008) and until the pups are about 3 weeks old they remain underground. They are usually able to forage with the group about 2–3 weeks after they first emerge from the burrow.
When there are young pups in a meerkat group, non-breeding females will also start lactating - known as allolactation - despite not having any pups themselves. These females will often ‘babysit’ the pups whilst the rest of the group is foraging away from the burrow through the day. Young males will also spend time babysitting the pups - this behaviour is dependent on their foraging success the day before.When the pups start to forage they are initially brought small, dead prey items by ‘helper’ individuals, which can be either male or female. As they get larger the food they are brought also gets larger and is presented alive rather than dead.
These animals occupy territories 1–3 kilometres square, depending on group size. When 2 or more groups of meerkats come into visual range of each other, they usually have a non-contact interaction - many individuals of both sexes come together with their tails in the air and ‘war dance’. They approach the other group running and jumping or bouncing up and down. At this point the weaker or smaller group usually backs down and runs away. Occasionally the 2 groups meet and fight until the weaker group leaves. Other behaviours observed around these inter-group interactions include:
- vigorously scent marking accessible areas with an anal gland under the tail
- dominant individuals asserting their dominance more frequently on to subordinate individuals
- the group creating or using an existing communal latrine
- increasing general dominance and marking behaviours
Whilst foraging, meerkats are at risk of predation from the air and on the ground. To increase their chances of survival, 1 or more individuals from the group will climb a tall structure, often a mound, bush or tree, to watch for predators while others continue foraging. Their eyesight is extremely good which gives the sentry an advantage. Whilst on guard the sentry will produce calls relevant to the threat perceived about a particular predator:
- if something is of interest, but not an actual threat, the sentry will produce a call that alerts others in the group to be vigilant, and the response will be that they also produce the call and look up
- if it is more threatening, the call will increase in intensity and the rest of the group will run to the entrances of bolt holes and watch the predator
- if it is perceived to be a real threat the whole group, including the sentry, will run down a bolt hole and stay there until the threat is gone
- if a snake is encountered, the group will come together in a tight group and ‘mob’ it with their tails in the air whilst making a growling vocalisation
Meerkats are known to be carriers of bovine tuberculosis Mycobacterium bovis.
In captivity, Meerkats have been known to live for over 12 years (Honolulu Zoo, 2001; Oakland Zoo, 1999). Lifespan in the wild may be from 5 to 15 years (van Staaden, 1994).
Status: wild: 1 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 12 (high) years.
Status: wild: 5 to 15 years.
Status: captivity: 12.5 years.
Status: captivity: 12.0 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Reports from captivity indicate that there is no elaborate precopulatory display. Males initiate copulation by fighting with the female. If the female resists his attempts to mount her, the male will grip her by the nape until she is submissive. During mating, the male grips the female around the middle to maintain his position until copulation has ended (van Staaden, 1994).
Mating System: cooperative breeder
Females typically breed at about 24 months of age (Clutton-Brock et al., 1999). The breeding season is extended in meerkats when conditions are favorable. In addition, females exhibit no synchrony of estrous, mating, or birth (van Staaden 1994). Therefore, the pack can produce young throughout the year. In the wild, however, births occur most often during the rainy, warmer part of the year from August through March (Estes, 1991; van Staaden, 1994). Breeding may stop during times of drought (Clutton-Brock et al., 1999). Gestation has been reported to be approximately 11 weeks (van Staaden, 1994). In captivity, Meerkats have been known to give birth to 11 litters in 31 months (van Staaden, 1994). In the wild, the average litter size is 3 offspring and females can have up to 3 litters per year (Estes, 1991).
Young are altricial, with ears and eyes closed. They are unable to urinate or defecate without stimulation from their mother. Ears open at about 10 days of age, and eyes at 10-14 days. Young are weaned between 49 and 63 days of age. Meerkats become sexually mature around 1 year of age (van Staaden, 1994).
Breeding season: Although individual females are highly seasonal breeders, within any population of meerkats there are always reproductive females to be found.
Average number of offspring: 3.
Average gestation period: 11 weeks.
Range weaning age: 49 to 63 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 1 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization (Internal ); viviparous
Average birth mass: 29 g.
Average gestation period: 77 days.
Average number of offspring: 4.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
Sex: male: 365 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 365 days.
As in all mammals, the mother provides the offspring with milk. Young mothers carry their young by picking them up any which-way, whereas older, experienced mothers always carry young by the nape of the neck. The father meerkat may take an active role in parental care by guarding the young. Because of the highly social nature of meerkats, nonbreeding individuals are often part of the pack. These nonbreeders act as helpers, guarding and provisioning the young (van Staaden, 1994).
Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Suricata suricatta
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
No species of mongoose is known to be threatened or endangered (The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens).
CITES: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Meerkats are significant carriers of rabies. However, there have only been 10 documented instances of rabies-infected meerkats attacking people or domestic animals in the past ten years. They are also a carrier of tick-borne diseases (van Staaden, 1994).
In some areas, meerkats are regarded as pests (The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens). This label is probably correlated with the ecological effects of their burrow construction and being carriers of disease (van Staaden, 1994).
Negative Impacts: crop pest; causes or carries domestic animal disease
Meerkats may slow the increase of agricultural pest populations, in particularly Lepidopterans. In addition, meerkats adapt well to captive settings and are a popular zoo exhibit animal (van Staaden, 1994).
Positive Impacts: controls pest population
The meerkat or suricate (Suricata suricatta) is a small carnivoran belonging to the mongoose family (Herpestidae). It is the only member of the genus Suricata. Meerkats live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, in much of the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and in South Africa. A group of meerkats is called a "mob", "gang" or "clan". A meerkat clan often contains about 20 meerkats, but some super-families have 50 or more members. In captivity, meerkats have an average life span of 12–14 years, and about half this in the wild.
"Meerkat" is a loanword from Afrikaans (pronounced [ˈmeə̯rkɐt]). The name has a Dutch origin, but by misidentification. Dutch meerkat refers to the "guenon", a monkey of the Cercopithecus genus. The word "meerkat" is Dutch for "lake cat", but although the suricata is a feliform, it is not of the cat family; the word possibly started as a Dutch adaptation of a derivative of Sanskrit markaţa मर्कट = "ape", perhaps in Africa via an Indian sailor on board a Dutch East India Company ship.
The meerkat is a small diurnal herpestid (mongoose) weighing on average about 0.5 to 2.5 kilograms (1.1 to 5.5 lb). Its long slender body and limbs give it a body length of 35 to 50 centimetres (14 to 20 in) and an added tail length of around 25 centimetres (9.8 in). The meerkat uses its tail to balance when standing upright, as well as for signaling. Its face tapers, coming to a point at the nose, which is brown. The eyes always have black patches around them, and they have small black crescent-shaped ears. Like cats, meerkats have binocular vision, their eyes being on the front of their faces.
At the end of each of a meerkat's "fingers" is a claw used for digging burrows and digging for prey. Claws are also used with muscular hindlegs to help climb trees. Meerkats have four toes on each foot and long slender limbs. The coat is usually peppered gray, tan, or brown with silver. They have short parallel stripes across their backs, extending from the base of the tail to the shoulders. The patterns of stripes are unique to each meerkat. The underside of the meerkat has no markings, but the belly has a patch which is only sparsely covered with hair and shows the black skin underneath. The meerkat uses this area to absorb heat while standing on its rear legs, usually early in the morning after cold desert nights.
Diet and foraging behaviour
Meerkats are primarily insectivores, but also eat other animals (lizards, snakes, scorpions, spiders, plants, eggs, small mammals, millipedes, centipedes and, more rarely, small birds) and fungi (the desert truffle Kalaharituber pfeilii). Meerkats are immune to certain types of venom, including the very strong venom of the scorpions of the Kalahari Desert, unlike humans.
Meerkats forage in a group with one "sentry" on guard watching for predators while the others search for food. Sentry duty is usually approximately an hour long. A meerkat can dig through a quantity of sand equal to its own weight in just seconds. Baby meerkats do not start foraging for food until they are about 1 month old, and do so by following an older member of the group who acts as the pup's tutor. The meerkat standing guard makes peeping sounds when all is well.
Meerkats become sexually mature at about two years of age and can have one to four pups in a litter, with three pups being the most common litter size. Meerkats are iteroparous and can reproduce any time of the year. The pups are allowed to leave the burrow at two to three weeks old.
There is no precopulatory display; the male may fight with the female until she submits to him and copulation begins. Gestation lasts approximately 11 weeks and the young are born within the underground burrow and are altricial (undeveloped). The young's ears open at about 10 days of age, and their eyes at 10–14 days. They are weaned around 49 to 63 days.
Usually, the alpha pair reserves the right to mate and normally kills any young not its own, to ensure that its offspring has the best chance of survival. The dominant couple may also evict, or kick out the mothers of the offending offspring. New meerkat groups are often formed by evicted females joining a group of males.
Meerkats are small burrowing animals, living in large underground networks with multiple entrances which they leave only during the day, except to avoid the heat of the afternoon. They are very social, living in colonies. Animals in the same group groom each other regularly. The alpha pair often scent-mark subordinates of the group to express their authority. There may be up to 30 meerkats in a group.
To look out for predators, one or more meerkats stand sentry, to warn others of approaching dangers. When a predator is spotted, the meerkat performing as sentry gives a warning bark or whistle, and other members of the group will run and hide in one of the many holes they have spread across their territory.
Meerkats also babysit the young in the group. Females that have never produced offspring of their own often lactate to feed the alpha pair's young. They also protect the young from threats, often endangering their own lives. On warning of danger, the babysitter takes the young underground to safety and is prepared to defend them if the danger follows.
Like many species, meerkat young 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: they will remove the stinger and help the pup learn how to handle the creature.
Despite this altruistic behaviour, meerkats sometimes kill young members of their group. Subordinate meerkats have been seen killing the offspring of more senior members in order to improve their own offspring's position.
Meerkat calls may carry specific meanings, with particular calls indicating the type of predator and the urgency of the situation. In addition to alarm calls, meerkats also make panic calls, recruitment calls, and moving calls. They chirrup, trill, growl, or bark, depending on the circumstances. Meerkats make different alarm calls depending upon whether they see an aerial or a terrestrial predator. Moreover, acoustic characteristics of the call will change with the urgency of the potential predatory episode. Therefore, six different predatory alarm calls with six different meanings have been identified: aerial predator with low, medium, and high urgency; and terrestrial predator with low, medium, and high urgency. Meerkats respond differently after hearing a terrestrial predator alarm call than after hearing an aerial predator alarm call. For example, upon hearing a high-urgency terrestrial predator alarm call, meerkats are most likely to seek shelter and scan the area. On the other hand, upon hearing a high-urgency aerial predator alarm call, meerkats are most likely to crouch down. On many occasions under these circumstances, they also look towards the sky.
There are three subspecies of meerkat:
- Suricata suricatta siricata
- Suricata suricatta iona
- Suricata suricatta majoriae
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