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Meerkats

Walter Colvin

Showlow, United States

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3d art of group of Meerkats on a log.

Views 2010
Made with bryce 3d.

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
“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.

The meerkat is a small diurnal herpestid (mongoose)
weighing on average about 731 grams (1.61 pounds) for
males and 720 grams (1.58 pounds) for females. Its long
slender body and limbs give it a body length of 25 to 35
cm (10 to 14 inches) and an added tail length of 17 to 25
cm (7 to 10 inches). Its tail is not bushy like all other
mongoose species, but is rather long and thin and tapers
to a black or reddish colored pointed tip. The meerkat
uses its tail to balance when standing upright. Its face
tapers, coming to a point at the nose, which is brown.
The eyes always have black patches around them, which
help deflect the sun’s glare. The meerkat has small black
crescent-shaped ears that can close when digging to keep
sand out. Like cats, meerkats have binocular vision, a
large peripheral range, depth perception, and eyes on the
front of their faces.
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 hindlegs 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.

Meerkats are primarily insectivores, but also eat lizards,
snakes, scorpions, spiders, plants, eggs, small mammals,
millipedes, centipedes and, more rarely, small birds. They
are partially immune to certain venoms; they are immune
to the very strong venom of the scorpions of the Kalahari
Desert, unlike humans. They have no excess body fat
stores, so foraging for food is a daily need.

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. The
meerkat standing guard makes peeping sounds when all is
well. If the meerkat spots danger, it barks loudly or
whistles.

Meerkats 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 dominan
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. 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.

Meerkats are small burrowing animals, living in large
underground networks with multiple entrances which
they leave only during the day. They are very social,
living in colonies averaging 20-30 members. Animals in
the same group regularly groom each other to strengthen
social bonds. The alpha pair often scent-mark
subordinates of the group to express their authority, and
this is usually followed by the subordinates grooming the
alphas and licking their faces. This behavior is also usually
practiced when group members are reunited after a short
period apart. Most meerkats in a group are all siblings or
offspring of the alpha pair.

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 babysit 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.
Like most species, meerkat young learn by observing and
mimicking adult behaviour though adults also engage in
active instruction. 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 behaviour, meerkats sometimes kill
young members of their group. Subordinate meerkats
have been seen killing the offspring of more senior
members in order to improve their own offspring’s
position.

Meerkats have been known to engage in social activities,
including what appear to be wrestling matches and foot
races.

From Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia.

Artwork Comments

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