Meerkats are extremely social and practice cooperative breeding. Beta males and females pitch in to help tend the alpha couples' young.

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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.