Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 12 inches (30 centimeters), females slightly larger than males
Shoulder height: 6 inches (15 centimeters)
Weight: 2 pounds (950 grams)
Life span: 10 years in wild, up to 13 years in zoos
Gestation: 11 weeks
Number of young at birth: 1 to 6, usually 3 to 4
Weight at birth: 1.2 ounces ( 35 grams )
Age of maturity: 1.5 years
Conservation status: lower risk
• Meerkats are known for their daring diet: they are able to kill
and eat venomous snakes and scorpions without being hurt, as they have
become immune to the venom.
• Able to survive without drinking water, meerkats get the moisture they need from eating roots and tubers as well as fruit such as tsama melons.
• Meerkats are a type of mongoose and were once considered to be in the same taxonomic family as genets, civets, and linsangs. Now they are placed in their own family.
• The skeletal structure and teeth of meerkats and other mongooses closely resemble those of the earliest carnivores.
• Other names for meerkats include the slender-tailed meerkat and African suricate.
• One of the San Diego Zoo's meerkats was the animator's model for the portrayal of Timon in Disney's film The Lion King.
- Meerkat Moving Day
- Meerkats: A Hospital Trip
- Meerkats: 8th Litter
- Meerkats: Heat Seekers
- Meerkats: Scent-marking
Listen to a meerkat bark!
A mob of meerkats
Most people know meerkats from the character Timon in The Lion King movie. However, instead of spending all their time with a warthog, most meerkats live in underground burrows in large groups of up to 30 individuals called a gang or a mob. The mob is made up of several family groups, with one dominant female and one dominant male who produce most of the offspring. Meerkat mobs spend a lot of their time grooming and playing together to keep the family as a tight unit.
Life in the burrow
Although they are excellent diggers, meerkats usually live in burrows dug by other animals such as ground squirrels. These burrows will have an average of 15 entrance and exit holes, with tunnels and chambers at several levels, some as deep as 6.5 feet (2 meters). The deeper tunnels stay at a constant, comfortable temperature, whether it's hot or cold outside. A meerkat mob will have several burrow systems within its territory and will move from one to another every few months.
Meerkats have scent pouches below their tails and will rub these pouches on rocks and plants to mark their territory. They are very territorial and will fiercely defend their home from other meerkat mobs, though they have been known to accept outside individuals into their mob. They sometimes even share their burrows with yellow mongooses.
Don't forget the shades
Many adaptations help meerkats survive in their hot, dusty environment. They have dark patches around their eyes that act to cut down on the glare and help them see far into the distance. Long, horizontal pupils give meerkats a wide range of vision without having to turn their head. Meerkats are built for digging and have a special membrane that can cover the eye to protect it while they are burrowing. These small diggers also have very special ears that they can close to keep out the sand while at work. In addition, meerkats have four toes on each feet (most mongoose species have five) and very long, nonretractable claws to help them dig.
A day in the life
Meerkats are diurnal: once the sun is up, they will carefully emerge from their burrow and spend some time sunbathing and grooming. Meerkats have thin fur and dark skin on their stomachs that helps them control body temperature. They can lie on their backs and get quickly warmed by the sun, or they can lie on their stomachs on a cool rock in the heat of midday. Once warmed up and ready to go, the meerkats will forage for most of the day, perhaps stopping in the shade or the burrow for the hottest hours. Then they return to the burrow to snuggle up for the night.
In the mood for food
No prey is safe from a meerkat! With their excellent sense of smell they can even find their food when it is hiding underground. Meerkats can dig very quickly to find insects (the biggest part of their diet), spiders, snails, rodents, birds, eggs, lizards, and scorpions. They have a home territory of about 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) or more and hunt in a different section each day, returning to the first area after a week. Each meerkat must find its own food, but they may share the task of capturing and eating a large lizard or other large food item. At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, the meerkats are fed carnivore diet, cat kibble, mealworms, crickets, and small amounts of produce.
Unfortunately for meerkats, they are a tasty treat for larger carnivores, especially jackals, eagles, and falcons. However, meerkats have developed a way to forage in relative safety. Adults will take turns acting as guard while the others can look for food without worries. The guard climbs to the highest rock, termite mound, or bush he or she can find, stands upright on two legs, and then announces the beginning of guard duty with a specialized call. A low, constant peeping, known as the watchman's song, is made when all is well. If a predator is spotted, the guard alerts the others with a bark or whistle. There are different calls for land predators and for those coming from the air. When the alarm is raised, the meerkats will usually run for the nearest hole, called a bolt hole. These are special tunnels with wider openings designed to hold a crowd of meerkats at once. Meerkats memorize the locations of thousands of bolt holes within their territory and are able to run to the closest one at a moment's notice. A meerkat mob will sometimes stir up dust to create a cover, or they may stand together to look larger than they are, acting fierce to scare off the predator.
In addition to taking turns acting as guard, meerkats also share the duty of raising the babies, called pups. The mother will need to spend time foraging in order to supply her pups with milk, so other females and males will stay behind to care for and protect the young. The mob may sometimes decide to move to a different burrow, and these "babysitters" will help transport the pups, carrying them by the scruff of their neck. The pups spend most of their time playing, and both pups and adults are very vocal. They make a peeping sound when playing, which rises to a louder twitter when they are excited, and purr when content.
Mom's in charge
Meerkats have a matriarchal society. In general, adult females are slightly larger than the males. The female can have several litters a year, but usually she has pups during times when there is plenty of food, generally during the rainy season. Pups are born with eyes and ears shut and are mostly hairless at birth. Their eyes open after two weeks, and they start eating food other than milk at three weeks. When they are four weeks old, the pups will first venture out of their den; they are weaned by nine weeks.
Young meerkats do not know what kind of food to eat, so their mother or another adult teaches them. Mom will bring home whole food such as an insect or lizard and will leap around in front of the pups until they take the food from her mouth. She will even bring home scorpions with their tail bitten off so the young can learn how to kill them without getting hurt. While adult meerkats have some immunity to scorpion stings, its large pincers can still do plenty of damage, and the pups have to learn to deal carefully with this dangerous prey.
Out and about
Provided with regular meals and San Diego's mild weather, meerkats at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park may produce as many as four litters a year, so it's almost always a good time to come and see meerkats!