Also known as suricates, meerkats are slim and relatively small mongooses associated with arid and semi-arid habitats in the western half of southern Africa. Highly sociable, these charming small carnivores typically live in burrows or crevices, depending on whether the terrain is sandy or rocky. They have an unusually low metabolic rate and specialized thermoregulation system to cope with the high daytime temperatures and occasional subzero nocturnal conditions that characterize parts of their range.
The meerkat is quite distinctive in appearance, with its pale grey-brown coat, indistinct banding on the back, long-snouted foxy face, and narrow tapering tail. Despite this, it could be mistaken for certain other ground-dwelling species. The yellow mongoose is roughly the same size, has a similar distribution, and also frequently stands upright, but it has a warmer red-yellow coat, no striping on the back, and a bushier tail. The banded mongoose is browner than the meerkat, it seldom stands upright, and the ranges of the two species hardly overlap. The Cape ground squirrel occurs alongside the meerkat in much of its range, and it also regularly stands upright, but the very bushy tail should preclude confusion.
Where to see Meerkat in Africa
Habituated meerkats can be seen and photographed in Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans and a South African private game reserve called Tswalu Kalahari. Other good sites in South Africa include Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Augrabies Falls National Park and Addo Elephant National Park.
Did you know?
- A group of Meerkats is called a “mob”, “gang” or “clan”. Average meerkat mobs have about 20 members in them, but researchers have discovered so-called “super-families” that feature as many as 50 members.
- The Meerkat’s belly has just a thin layer of hair that covers their black skin. After a cold night in their borrow, they will stand up and face the sun and absorb heat
Meerkats remain quite common throughout their range, and are classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.
Meerkats are omnivores whose principal diet of beetles and other arthropods is occasionally supplemented by small vertebrates, eggs, fruits and seeds.
Among the most sociable of carnivores, meerkats live in packs of up to 30 individuals, which usually comprise several male-female pairs and raise their offspring cooperatively. Social hierarchies within any given pack are well defined and based primarily on age, with older individuals enjoying a senior status and being more likely to breed. Most packs live in labyrinthine burrows that have several entrances and lie close to the center of their range. When packs are out foraging, a few individuals will always stand sentry on their hind legs, ready to emit a high-pitched warning bark should they spot a snake, bird of prey or any other potential threat. Meerkat packs are very tightly knit, but they react aggressively to other packs, and confrontations – usually led by the dominant females – often result in severe injuries or death.
Kalahari Meerkat Project – http://www.kalahari-meerkats.com/fkmp/