Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) inhabit portions of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, extending from the south west arid biotic zone and eastward into neighboring southern savanna and grassland areas (van Staaden, 1994). These areas include the majority of the southern tip of Africa up to about 17 degrees South latitude.
Meerkats inhabit the most open and arid country of any mongoose species. They are found in areas of savannah and open plains and their distribution depends on soil type, with firm to hard soils being common living grounds (Estes, 1991; van Staaden, 1994).
S. suricatta is a small herpestid with males averaging 731 grams and females 720 grams. The body and legs of these animals are long and slender, with head and body length between 250 and 350 mm. The tail is thin and tapering to a point, and adds 175-250 mm to the total length of the animal. It is not bushy like many mongoose species.
The face is also tapered, coming to a point at the nose and rounded at the forehead. The ears are small and crescent-shaped. The color of the coat varies geographically. In the southern portion of their range, pelage color is darker, with lighter pelage coloration in the more arid regions, following Gloger's rule. Generally, the color of the coat is peppered gray, tan, or brown with a silver tint. The nose is brown. The ventral parts of the body are only sparsely covered with hair. The fore claws are enlarged for digging and the tail is yellowish tan in color with a distinctive black tip. In addition, there are distinctive dark patches around the eyes. Dark horizontal bands run across the dorsal parts of the body except the head and tail.
The skull exhibits large eye sockets, no sagittal crest, thin zygomatic arch, and a coronoid process of medium height. The dental formula is 3/3 1/1 3/3 2/2 = 36. The incisors curve slightly and the cheek teeth have high, pointed cusps
(van Staaden, 1994; Nowak, 1999).
Reports from captivity indicate that there is no elaborate precopulatory display. Males initiate copulation by fighting with the female. If the female resists his attempts to mount her, the male will grip her by the nape until she is submissive. During mating, the male grips the female around the middle to maintain his position until copulation has ended (van Staaden, 1994).
Females typically breed at about 24 months of age (Clutton-Brock et al., 1999). The breeding season is extended in meerkats when conditions are favorable. In addition, females exhibit no synchrony of estrous, mating, or birth (van Staaden 1994). Therefore, the pack can produce young throughout the year. In the wild, however, births occur most often during the rainy, warmer part of the year from August through March (Estes, 1991; van Staaden, 1994). Breeding may stop during times of drought (Clutton-Brock et al., 1999). Gestation has been reported to be approximately 11 weeks (van Staaden, 1994). In captivity, Meerkats have been known to give birth to 11 litters in 31 months (van Staaden, 1994). In the wild, the average litter size is 3 offspring and females can have up to 3 litters per year (Estes, 1991).
Young are altricial, with ears and eyes closed. They are unable to urinate or defecate without stimulation from their mother. Ears open at about 10 days of age, and eyes at 10-14 days. Young are weaned between 49 and 63 days of age. Meerkats become sexually mature around 1 year of age (van Staaden, 1994).
As in all mammals, the mother provides the offspring with milk. Young mothers carry their young by picking them up any which-way, whereas older, experienced mothers always carry young by the nape of the neck. The father meerkat may take an active role in parental care by guarding the young. Because of the highly social nature of meerkats, nonbreeding individuals are often part of the pack. These nonbreeders act as helpers, guarding and provisioning the young (van Staaden, 1994).
In captivity, Meerkats have been known to live for over 12 years (Honolulu Zoo, 2001; Oakland Zoo, 1999). Lifespan in the wild may be from 5 to 15 years (van Staaden, 1994).
Meerkats are highly social and live in packs consisting of up to 3 familial groups (van Staaden, 1994). There can be up to 30 individuals in a pack. Each individual family group includes a breeding pair and their offspring. Within packs, animals are usually friendly, but among packs, serious fights can erupt (Estes, 1991).
Meerkats exhibit sentinel behavior where one member of the group poses as a look out, watching for predators and other danger (Manser, 1999). The sentinel sounds alarm by giving a distinct bark. If a parent sounds alarm, its offspring run to and huddle around their mother (van Staaden, 1994).
Sentinel rotation occurs throughout the day among different members of the pack and is announced vocally. Sentinel behavior is especially notable when the group is foraging away from the burrow. During foraging, prey are located by smell. Older individuals often share food with juveniles. (van Staaden, 1994)
Adult male meerkats typically emigrate from the pack in which they were born and attempt to join or take over another pack. Females are usually philopatric. Nonbreeding members of the pack often act as babysitters for nursing females. This allows ample opportunity for these females to forage, thus maintaining a sufficient milk supply for the offspring (van Staaden, 1994). Babysitting continues until the young are able to forage with the pack.
Very young meerkats are unable to dispose of bodily wastes without assistance from their mother. It is important that she lick the perineal area to stimulate excretion of urine and feces (Estes, 1991).
Although meerkats are basically diurnal, their activity is controlled larely by the soil temperature. They are only active when the sun is present and warms the surface of their burrows. When the weather is overcast or raining, S. suricata does not emerge from its underground retreat. Similarly, during midday, if temperatures are too high, meerkats will return to the burrow to cool off. (van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats are mainly insectivorous, but will take small vertebrates, eggs, and plant matter. They forage regularly for these food items, digging in soil and grass and overturning rocks. Their animal diet consists of 82% insects, 7% arachnids, 3% centipedes, 3% millipedes, 2% reptiles, and 2% birds. Captive meerkats will prey readily upon small mammals (van Staaden, 1994).
Predators include various avian and mammalian carnivores, such as hawks and eagles (particularly the Martial Eagle) and jackals.
S. suricatta shows a variety of anti-predator behaviors. These behaviors include alarm calling, maintaining an alert stance by propping the body into an upright position, running for cover, defensive threats, mobbing an enemy, self defense, and covering the young.
In defensive threats and mobbing, meerkats appear larger than they actually are. An individual will arch its back, standing as tall as possible on all four legs, with hair and tail erect, and its head lowered. At the same time, it will rock back and forth, growl, hiss, and spit in an attempt to intimidate its enemy. Mobbing requires a group of meerkats all giving defensive threats at the same time. If a predator approaches in spite of these bluffs, a meerkat will lie on its back with teeth and claws fully visible, protecting the back of its neck.
For aerial predators, meerkats will most often flee to a burrow if an attack seems forthcoming. If surprised, however, adults will cover their offspring with their own bodies (Estes, 1991).
Meerkats are an important link in the food web. They provide food for predators. They also take many invertebrates, probably acting as a control on their own prey populations.
Meerkats may slow the increase of agricultural pest populations, in particularly Lepidopterans. In addition, meerkats adapt well to captive settings and are a popular zoo exhibit animal (van Staaden, 1994).
Meerkats are significant carriers of rabies. However, there have only been 10 documented instances of rabies-infected meerkats attacking people or domestic animals in the past ten years. They are also a carrier of tick-borne diseases (van Staaden, 1994).
In some areas, meerkats are regarded as pests (The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens). This label is probably correlated with the ecological effects of their burrow construction and being carriers of disease (van Staaden, 1994).
No species of mongoose is known to be threatened or endangered (The Living Desert Zoo & Gardens).
Meerkats are also known as Suricates or slender-tailed mongooses.
The Honolulu Zoo houses only male meerkats. This is to ensure no possibility of an escaped group to establish a breeding population. If this were to occur, they could seriously damage the natural ecosystem (Honolulu Zoo, 2001).
Tammy Fuehrer (author), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Chris Yahnke (editor), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
an animal that mainly eats meat
either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.
helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own
in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
parental care is carried out by females
union of egg and spermatozoan
An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.
fertilization takes place within the female's body
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
parental care is carried out by males
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
associates with others of its species; forms social groups.
uses touch to communicate
the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.
reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.
breeding takes place throughout the year
Clutton-Brock, T. 1999. Reproduction and survival of suricates (*Suricata suricatta*) in the southern Kalahari.. African Journal of Ecology,, 37(1): 69-80.
Estes, R. 1991. The behavior guide to African mammals. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Honolulu Zoo, Date unknown. "Meerkat" (On-line). Accessed December 3, 2001 at http://www.honoluluzoo.org/meerkat.htm.
Manser, M. 1999. Response of foraging group members to sentinel calls in Suricates, *Suricata suricatta*. Royal Society of London. Proceedings. Biological Sciences,, 266: 1423.
Nowak, R. 1999. Walker's Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Oakland Zoo, Date Unknown. "Animals A-Z: Meerkat" (On-line). Accessed December 3, 2001 at http://www.oaklandzoo.org/atoz/azmeerkat.html.
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, Date Unknown. "Fact Sheet: Meerkat" (On-line). Accessed December 3, 2001 at http://www.livingdesert.org/sgmeerkat.html.
van Staaden, M. 1994. Suricata suricata. Mammalian Species, 483: 1-8.