If you've seen Disney's "The Lion King" or Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor," you're familiar with the celebrity meerkats. And whether your favorite is the animated Timon or one of the reality TV families (Whiskers clan, or otherwise), it's hard not to fall for these small, social mammals.
But just like Hollywood celebrities, it's best to appreciate meerkats from a distance. According to a law called the Lacey Act, any wildlife (wild mammals, birds and fish) that isn't native to the U.S. can't be brought here. Meerkats live in the Kalahari Desert, spanning across South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola, which makes it illegal to keep them as pets in the U.S. without specific permits and licenses [source: Kalahari Meerkat Project].
If you make it that close, you'll notice that meerkats (or Suricata suricatta) are about the size of a squirrel, although they're actually relatives of the mongoose. They have only four toes on each foot, and they stand about 10 to 12 inches tall. Meerkats have 8 or 9-inch slender, tapered tails, and they weigh about two pounds. The color of their coats varies depending on the climate in which they live: It can be gray, tan or brown, sometimes with a silvery tint, and with darkly colored bands across their backs.
Meerkat ears and eyes have special features to keep the sand out. They're able to close their ears, and their eyes have a membrane -- called the nictitating membrane -- that removes sand with a blink. Their eyes are also darkly rimmed, which reduces glare and enhances their vision in the bright desert sun.
On average, meerkats live 10 years. Can you imagine a decade-long grub diet? Next, we'll learn about meerkat cuisine, habitat and predators.
Meerkat Habitat and Diet
Primarily, meerkats are insectivores, which means most of their diet is made up of insects. However, they won't turn down a meal of small mammals, snakes and snake eggs, birds and bird eggs, grubs (an insect's wormlike larva) and even poisonous scorpions (they've perfected the scorpion hunt to avoid the venom).
Meerkats spend a significant part of the day foraging for their food with their sensitive noses. When they find it, they eat on the spot. Their diet consists of roughly 82 percent insects, 7 percent spiders, 3 percent centipedes, 3 percent millipedes, 2 percent reptiles and 2 percent birds [source: University of Michigan]. Depending on what part of the Kalahari Desert meerkats call home, water can be scarce; but at the very least, it can be found in tubers and roots.
Meerkats are territorial and the size of their land depends on the size of their pack and the quality of local food and water foraging. They're transient by nature and move when their food supply becomes depleted or they're forced out by a stronger gang. The group's dominant male, the alpha male, marks the group's territory to protect the boundary from rivals and predators.
Burrows are created as homes in the sand across this territory. Meerkats work collectively to build and renovate their homes through excavation. These burrows are elaborate underground quarters. Although meerkats are capable of setting up house themselves (their sharp, nonretractable claws are well-suited for digging), they often share the work and the dwelling with African ground squirrels and the yellow mongoose. Meerkats will also share their burrows with beetles -- a type of species they don't have a taste for -- that are content to eat any waste the meerkats leave behind.
Meerkats enter and exit their burrows through several scattered holes in the ground. A labyrinth of tunnels connects dens and other entry holes. Dens are used for protection, sleeping and breeding. Bolt-holes are a sub-system of entrances and tunnels created around the territory and used as safe houses or escapes when danger arises. These holes are especially helpful when the meerkat pack is foraging away from the primary burrow entrances.
In addition to the bolt-hole system, meerkats use sentinels, or lookouts, to stay safe. One meerkat, rotating throughout the day, stands watch for approaching predators while the rest of the group concentrates on foraging or other daily activities. If a predator or danger is spotted, the sentinel lets everyone know through a specific bark, similar to sounding a siren or alarm. The meerkats have their own language, with specific calls used as alarms. It's quite an efficient system of predator detection: In one study, sentinels were able to detect predators more than 150 meters away 77 percent of the time, compared to only 44 percent detected by foraging meerkats [source: University of Cambridge].
Who are the predators? Meerkats are on the lookout for martial eagles, jackals, hawks, snakes and other competitive meerkat gangs. If trouble arises and the sentinel sounds the alarm, there are a few different techniques to dodge the danger, including running for the bolt-holes, fending off the attacker and covering babies, standing tall in alert stance, and mobbing the enemy. In ground conflict, defensive threats and mobbing make the meerkats seem large and intimidating. Mobbing meerkats rock back and forth while hissing and growling. But when enemies approach from the sky, meerkats most often seek protection in their burrows.
Meerkats live in cooperative social systems. Now let's learn more about their social structure and the different roles meerkats play in their community.
Meerkat Social Customs
Meerkats don't live alone. They are social, diurnal (active during the day) animals who live in gangs of about two to 50 [source: Kalahari Meerkat Project]. They spend their days foraging for food, caring for their young and guarding their territory. And let's not forget grooming and napping. Meerkats brush and clean each other's fur with their claws and teeth -- and they've even figured out that their claws are a good substitute for floss. In the hot midday desert sun, meerkats are known to nap in the shade or in their dens, usually piled on top of one another.
The rulers of the group are the alpha male and alpha female, and every meerkat gang has a similar power couple.
The alpha male and female are the gang's dominant couple. Meerkats are matriarchal, and the alpha female chooses the alpha male. In addition to the alpha couple, the gang consists of beta males, beta females and pups. Pups are meerkat babies, 10 months old or younger. Beta males and beta females are all the meerkats in the gang who are not pups or the alpha couple. They are subservient to the alpha meerkats and leave the gang by the time they're three years old.
Beta males voluntarily leave the community to become the new dominant males in another gang, or to form a new gang with unrelated females.
Beta females, however, are forced to leave. They're evicted from their gang by the alpha female during her pregnancy. Any or all beta females may be evicted, but pregnant beta females are the most likely to go. Not all beta females return to the gang after eviction. Some return after the alpha female has given birth to her pups, but others join outside groups permanently.
Now that we know about the meerkats' hierarchy, let's focus on their mating and breeding habits. Do meerkats know how to find food because of basic instincts, or do they rely on their elders to teach them the ropes? Find out in the next section.
The alpha female meerkat is usually the largest female in the gang. She scratches and fights her way to the dominant position. She is the only female in the gang allowed to breed, and she breeds exclusively with the alpha male.
Meerkat society is one of cooperative breeding -- everyone pitches in to care for the young. When pups are born, they're hairless and unable to open their eyes or ears for at least 10 days. Nonbreeders take turns baby-sitting pups inside the burrow so the mother can forage for food. Pups won't emerge from the burrow until they're about three weeks old.
Elder meerkats are the educators. Meerkats rely more on mentoring than instinct when it comes to learning foraging and danger detection. Pups are weaned and become integrated into the group by the time they're a month old. But for their first three months, they don't yet know how to handle prey and find food so their baby-sitters continue to feed them.
Adults and pups all participate in play fighting. Young meerkats play fight to learn and to practice their skills, while adults use it to establish dominance within the gang.
Although the dominant female is the only female allowed to breed in the meerkat community, she's responsible for only 80 percent of litters produced [source: National Geographic]. Meerkats reach sexual maturity right around their first birthday, and some beta females will become pregnant before leaving the gang. Males initiate sex with females year-round by fighting with them. After a pregnancy of about 11 weeks, the female delivers a litter ranging from two to four pups [source: Honolulu Zoo].
When a beta female has babies, there are a few scenarios that can play out. The pups from the nondominant meerkat may be concealed and raised alongside other pups in the burrow. However, the likelihood of this is small, and researchers have learned that meerkats often practice infanticide. In an effort to maintain dominance and secure the most resources for her own babies, pregnant alpha females sometimes kill pups born to beta females. On the flip side, subordinate females may kill the alpha female's litter -- as well as pups birthed by other beta females -- in order to maximize the chance of survival and quality of care for their own young [source: National Geographic]. Researchers call this the dark side of cooperative breeding.
For more information about how to adopt a meerkat and for related articles and videos, mob our list of resources on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Animal Diversity Web. Museum of Zoology. University of Michigan. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Suricata_suricatta.html
- Ashley Gosselin-Ildari, Ashley. " Suricata suricatta, Meerkat." NSF Digital Library at UT Austin. http://www.digimorph.org/specimens/Suricata_suricatta/
- Bellafante, Ginia. "'The Desert Has Lost Its Favorite Rose': Death Comes to the Whiskers Family." The New York Times. 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/10/arts/television/10bell.html
- Fellow Earthlings' Wildlife Center. http://www.fellowearthlings.org/
- Honolulu Zoo. http://www.honoluluzoo.org/meerkat.htm
- "Lacey Act." Michigan State University College of Law. http://www.animallaw.info/statutes/stusfd16usca3371.htm
- "Lacey Act." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Office of Law Enforcement. http://www.fws.gov/le/pdffiles/Lacey.pdf
- "Mammals: Meerkat." San Diego Zoo. http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/t-meerkat.html
- Manser, Martha B. "Response of foraging group members to sentinel calls in suricates, Suricata suricatta." Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge. 1999. http://www.zool.uzh.ch/static/research/vb_manser/literatur/pdf99/Manser_1999.pdf
- "Meerkat." National Geographic. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/meerkat.html
- "Meerkat Biology and Behaviour." Kalahari Meerkat Project. http://www.kalahari-meerkats.com/index.php?id=about-meerkats
- Norris, Scott. "Murderous Meerkat Moms Contradict Caring Image, Study Finds." National Geograhic. 2006. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/03/0315_060315_meerkats.html
- Ray, C. Claiborne. "Q & A; Cat or Meerkat?" The New York Times. 2003. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9903E2DD113DF93AA35751C1A9659C8B63&n=Top%2FNews%2FScience%2FTopics%2FAnimals