Photo taken in Burgers Zoo, The Netherlands, February 2008.
Canon PowerShot S5 IS
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 about 20 meerkats at a time, but some superfamilies have had 50 or more. Meerkats have an average life span of 12-14 years.
“Meerkat” is a loanword from Afrikaans. 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 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 markaţa मर्कट = “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.
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.
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.2 The meerkat standing guard makes peeping sounds when all is well. If the meerkat spots danger, it barks loudly or whistles.
A meerkat in the Kalahari DesertMeerkats become sexually mature at about one year of age and can have 1 to 5 pups in a litter, with 3 pups being the most common litter size. Wild meerkats may have up to four litters per year. Meerkats are iteroparous and can reproduce any time of the year but most births occur in the warmer seasons. The female meerkat can have more than one litter a year. The pups are allowed to leave the burrow at three weeks old. When the pups are ready to emerge from the burrow, the whole clan of meerkats will stand around the burrow to watch. Some of the adolescents might try to show off so they can have more attention than the pups.
Reports show that there is no precopulatory 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.
If the members of the alpha group are relatives (this tends to happen when the alpha female dies and is succeeded by a daughter), they do not mate with each other and reproduction is by group females stray-mating with roving males from other groups; in this situation, pregnant females tend to kill and eat any pups born to other females.