The endearing meercat
With an endearing appearance and interesting social behaviour
Meercats are always special to see on a safariThough they are one of the smaller mongooses, what meercats lack in size, suricates make up for in attitude and powerful curiosity. They have a phenomenal sense of smell, and their front paws are highly adapted for digging and foraging. A generalisation in nature is that the more social animals in a particular group are, the higher the intelligence (as we understand it). Meerkats fit this pattern very neatly. They can coordinate as a group when problem-solving but have also been shown to use individual thought and rationalisation in the process.
Standing at only 30 cm tall, meerkats, also known as suricates, have captured the attention of television and film audiences around the world because of their endearing appearance and interesting social behaviour. They depend on group cooperation to survive. They live in groups of 20 to 50 extended family members in large underground tunnels. These family groups, called gangs or mobs, are led by an alpha pair, with the female being dominant. Female meerkats have a gestation period of 11 weeks and have between one and five young in their litter. Normally, only the alpha pair will reproduce and may even kill young that are not their own. Meerkats have a life span of up to ten years.
Diurnal animals, meerkats are omnivores that eat a wide variety of foods, such as fruits and grasses as well as animals like lizards, scorpions, snakes, insects and rodents. They avoid scorpion venom by perfecting ways of hunting scorpions. Scorpions are mostly nocturnal, and can only be captured by the meerkats when digging them out of the ground or by turning over stones under which the scorpions take shelter. Generally, meerkats do not actively chase prey although they may chase geckos and lizards over a few metres. Meerkats can spend most of the day foraging for food and once they find food, they eat on the spot.
They are always on the alert and turn their heads from side-to-side while foraging food. While digging, the head is held low and the tail is point up. Meerkats are active in the early morning and late afternoon and this is evident in summer when they stay in the shade of trees/shrubs not far from the burrow to avoid the midday heat on a sunny day while playing with the young. They vocalise when outside the burrow to maintain contact with others in their cohesive group.
Meerkats can dig throughout the day looking for food while communicating by means of vocal calls to the rest of the group. This strategy helps keep the group a distance of a maximum of about 5 m apart from one another while foraging. During foraging an individual on guard stands on a rock or tree stump looking out for possible predators.
Their colouration enables meerkats to blend in quite easily in their arid habitats. Meerkats have facial features that resemble other members of mongoose family. Furthermore, they have remarkably small ears, which are dark in colour and covered with hair that is either black or white. The short hair above the nose is white or mixed brown and white. They have black rings of fur around their eyes; these black rings of fur enable meerkats to see efficiently in bright sunlight and the eyes have a protective membrane shielding them from dirt while digging for food. Compared to the hind feet, the front feet have strong, curved claws that are about 15 mm long and ideal for digging. When the meerkat burrows, it is able to close off its ear openings to prevent dust and debris from getting into the ear canal. Posteriorly, meerkats have a deep pouch that encircles the anus and two anal glands that secrete a chemical that is the same in composition in males and females.
The sentinel communicates danger to the rest of the group, and it has been found that they make two different types of alarm call depending on how urgent the situation is – either ‘run for cover’ or ‘danger may be in the area’. The calls are easily distinguishable and which call is uttered normally depends on whether an aerial or a terrestrial predator has been spotted. Meerkats also make use of olfactory communication. Scent released contains information on both sex and sexual receptivity of an individual.
Meerkats are restricted to southern Africa, where they occur in the more arid parts of Namibia, Botswana, Angola and South Africa. In South Africa they occur in open areas, across much of the central and western part of the country. They occur in the Western and Eastern Cape; however, they are more widespread in Free State and the Northern Cape.
One of the best places to see meercats is Tswalu - Motse Lodge
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