Despite how their name sounds, meerkats are not related to cats at all but are most closely related to mongoose. Despite not being the largest or the most majestic of animals, meerkats have, nevertheless, become a well-known symbol of Africa. They have been very successful in the arid and painfully hot areas they call home in the far south of the African continent. Their attentive little faces as they stretch their bodies to look for danger easily captures the human imagination.
Scientific & Common Names
Kingdom - Animalia
Phylum - Chordata
Class - Mammalia
Order - Carnivora
Family - Herpestidae
Genus – Suricata
Species – Suricata suricatta
Common Names – Meerkat, suricat
Meerkats live in families – referred to as ‘mobs’ – of anywhere from 20-50 individuals and those mobs can comprise one or more families. They are less than a foot tall and weigh only around two pounds. They have light brown or orangish fur and stripes on their back, often in black or grey. The iconic image of a meerkat standing on its hind legs is actually a sentry standing guard while the other members feed. When the sentry spots danger, they give a shrill cry and the others will scurry to safety.
Often only the alpha pair will breed and any offspring of lesser females will be killed but this is not always the case and depends on the resources available. Mothers give birth in the extensive tunnel system to 2-4 young. The entire family, fathers and siblings included, help to rear and teach the young. The young open their eyes at about two weeks and will begin to leave the burrow at about three weeks. They are weaned after three months but will remain with the family indefinitely. The fact that family members often stay together has led to some cases of inbreeding, but it is not known how much of a effect this has had.
They dig multiple burrows with extensive tunnels and rooms. These burrows serve several purposes, from housing the young, to protection from predators, and even protection from the often punishing African sun. They have elaborate signaling systems they use that constitute a meerkat language. They have different piercing calls for predators and quieter, purring sounds they use when hunting. They will eat almost anything from fruits, to insects, to lizards and birds that they expertly hunt in organized groups.
Meerkats are related to mongoose and probably evolved from the banded mongoose at some point.
Although they are a common prey animal for jackals, eagles, and hawks, meerkats are not considered to be in any danger. They have been used by people in the past to hunt rodents, but they do not tame well.
- International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
- The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
- National Geographic
- The Evolutionary Genetics of Meerkats (surucata suricatta) by Johanna F. Nielsen
- Meerkats by Nigel Dennis, David Macdonald
- The Wildlife of Southern Africa: A Field Guide to the Animals and Plants of the Region by Vincent Carruthers