|The meerkat or suricate Suricata suricatta is a small mammal and a member of the mongoose family. It inhabits all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and South Africa. A group of meerkats is called a "mob", "gang", or "clan". A meerkat clan often contains around 20 meerkats at a time, but some super families have had 50 or more. Meerkats have an average life span of 12-14 years.|
"Meerkat" is an English loan word from Afrikaans. The name came from Dutch but by misidentification. Dutch meerkat and German Meerkatze mean "guenon", a monkey of the Cercopithecus genus. The word "meerkat" looks like Dutch for "lake cat", but the suricata is not in the cat family, and neither suricatas nor guenons are attracted to lakes; the word possibly started as a Dutch adaptation of a derivative of Sanskrit markaţaमर्कट = "monkey", perhaps in Africa via an Indian sailor onboard a Dutch East India Company ship. The traders of the Dutch East India Company were likely familiar with monkeys, but the Dutch settlers attached the name to the wrong animal at the Cape. The suricata is called stokstaartje = "little stick-tail" in Dutch and Erdmännchen = "little earth-man" in German.
According to African popular belief (mainly in the Zambian/Zimbabwean region), the Meerkat is also known as the sun angel, as it protects villages from the moon devil or the werewolf which is believed to attack stray cattle or lone tribesmen.
At the end of each of a meerkat's "fingers" is a non-retractable, strong, 2 cm (0.8 inches) long, curved claw used for digging underground burrows and digging for prey. Claws are also used with muscular hind legs to help climb the occasional tree. They have four toes on each foot and long slender limbs. The coat is usually fawn-colored peppered with gray, tan, or brown with a silver tint. 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 behavior
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. 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.
Reports show that there is no pre-copulatory display; the male ritually grooms the female until she submits to him and copulation begins, the male generally adopting a seated position during the act. Gestation lasts approximately 11 weeks and the young are born within the underground burrow and are altricial. The young's ears open at about 15 days of age, and their eyes at 10-14 days. They are weaned around 49 to 63 days. They do not come above ground until at least 21 days of age and stay with babysitters near the burrow. After another week or so, they join the adults on a foraging party.
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 pairing with roving males.
Meerkats demonstrate altruistic behavior within their colonies; one or more meerkats stand sentry (lookout) while others are foraging or playing, to warn them of approaching dangers. When a predator is spotted, the meerkat performing as sentry gives a warning bark, and other members of the gang will run and hide in one of the many bolt holes they have spread across their territory. The sentry meerkat is the first to reappear from the burrow and search for predators, constantly barking to keep the others underground. If there is no threat, the sentry meerkat stops signaling and the others feel safe to emerge.
Meerkats also baby-sit the young in the group. Females that have never produced offspring of their own often lactate to feed the alpha pair's young, while the alpha female is away with the rest of the group. 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. If retreating underground is not possible, she collects all young together and lies on top of them.
Meerkats are also known to share their burrow with the yellow mongoose and ground squirrel, species with which they do not compete for resources. If they are unlucky, sometimes they share their burrow with snakes.
Meerkats are the first non-human mammal species seen actively teaching their young. Young of most species learn solely by observing adults. 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 behavior, meerkats sometimes kill young members of their group. Subordinate meerkats have been seen killing the offspring of more senior members in order to advance their own offspring's' positions.
Meerkats have been known to engage in social activities, including what appear to be wrestling matches and foot races.
Genus: Suricata Desmarest, 1804
Species: S. suricatta
Suricata suricatta: (Schreber, 1776)
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