The meerkat or suricate, Suricata suricatta, is a small mammal belonging to the mongoose family. Meerkats live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, in much of the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola, and in South Africa. A group of meerkats is called a "mob", "gang" or "clan". A meerkat clan often contains about 20 meerkats, but some super-families have 50 or more members.
In captivity, meerkats have an average life span of 12-14 years, and about half this in the wild.
The meerkat is a small diurnal herpestid (mongoose) weighing on average about 731 grams (1.61 lb.) for males and 720 grams (1.6 lb.) for females. Its long slender body and limbs give it a body length of 25 - 35 centimetres (9.8 - 14 in) and an added tail length of 17 to 25 centimetres (6.7 - 9.8 in). Its tail is not bushy like all other mongoose species, but is rather long and thin and tapers to a black or reddish coloured pointed tip. The meerkat uses its tail to balance when standing upright, as well as for signalling.
At the end of each of a meerkat's "fingers" is a non-retractable, strong, 2 centimetres (0.79 in) long, curved claw used for digging burrows and digging for prey. Claws are also used with muscular hindlegs to help climb trees.
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.
Diet & Foraging Behaviour:
Meerkats are primarily insectivores, but also eat lizards, snakes, scorpions, spiders, plants, eggs, small mammals, millipedes, centipedes and, more rarely, small birds. Meerkats are immune to certain types of venom; 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.
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 behaviour within their colonies; one or more meerkats stand sentry 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 signalling 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.