Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are native to the Ethiopian region, near the southern tip of Africa. Their geographic range includes the southwestern corner of Angola, extending southeast into Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. Large populated areas begin at latitudes of 21 °S to the southern edge of the continent. They inhabit the west coast near the Atlantic Ocean and extend as far east as the Assegaai River in northeastern South Africa. Many observations of meerkats have been made in the southern region of the Kalahari Desert, which spreads throughout most of Botswana, western Namibia, and northern South Africa. (Doolan and Macdonald, 1996; Doolan and Macdonald, 1999; Ewer, 1963; Kingdon, et al., 2013; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats live in a range of habitats, including arid or semi-arid open plains and rocky crevices near rivers. Meerkats are most commonly found in velds, which are flat, open habitats covered by scrub, grasses, and sparse trees. Specific types of veld habitat that meerkats use include Karoo scrub, Kalahari thornveld, Botswana acacia scrub, Namibia Camelthorn and Highland rangeland, and Botswana semi-desert savannas – areas which average less than 600 mm of rainfall annually. An exact elevation range has yet to be reported for meerkats.
Whether meerkats occupy a certain habitat is influenced by soil type, as they create complex burrow systems. They occupy areas associated with firm soil, such as Solonetzi soils, ferruginous (iron) soils, and podzolic soils, but also occupy sandy, desert soils found in the Kalahari. Meerkats construct their own burrows, but may also use abandoned burrows created by other small mammals. Meerkats are also known to displace other species from burrows that are actively in use.
Meerkat burrows, also called dens, range in size and complexity. The entrances are surrounded by tall mounds of excavated dirt. They create multiple entrances dug at approximately 40 degree angles to the plane of the groud. The tunnels and chambers of their dens range in diameter from 1 to 5 m. Their dens also include tunnels that are about 1.5 m long. A study in 1980 reported burrow systems with 2 to 3 levels of tunnels that connected chambers approximately 30 cm high by 15 to 45 cm long. Their burrows help them stay cool even when ambient temperatures are high. There burrows are average of 13 °C compared to an average annual air temperature of about 43 °C in parts of their range. (Kingdon, et al., 2013; Lynch, 1980; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats are one of the smallest species of mongooses in the family Herpestidae. They are 245 to 290 mm from head to rump, with slender bodies and tails that are 190 to 240 mm in length. Males have an average body mass of 731 g while females are an average of 720 g. Meerkats have 4 long, curved claws on each foot. The claws on their front and hind feet average 15 mm and 8 mm long, respectively. In a study examining 7 meerkats, hindfoot length averaged 55mm (range: 37 to 65 mm) and ear length averaged about 16 mm (range: 11 to 19 mm).
Meerkats exhibit dorsal coloration of tan, brown, or grey, with areas of white, though specific coloration varies between individuals. They typically have brown banding along their backs, rears, and sides. Their heads are usually completely white, with the exception of brown or tan pelage on the very top of their heads, continuing down their necks and backs. Meerkats also have black rings around their large eyes. Their small, black ears are crescent-shaped, often with white or brown accents. Their noses can be pink, brown, black, or a combination of multiple colors. Meerkats in southern portions of their range have darker coloration compared to populations in the west and northwest.
Meerkats have soft pelage that is mostly short, about 15 to 20 mm in length. However, the hair on their flanks can reach 30 to 40 mm. Meerkats have tapered faces with short muzzles and broad heads with rounded skulls. Their dental formula is 3/3i, 1/1c, 3/3p, 2/2m. (Ewer, 1963; Kingdon, et al., 2013; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats breed seasonally, commonly corresponding with greater amounts of rainfall. A study in 1997 reported that the breeding season in the southern Kalahari desert lasted from October to June and 89% of 62 litters were born between December and May. The same study stated that breeding seasons were extended during years with abundant rain. More rain corresponds to more nutrient-rich soil, which leads to a greater abundance of food for meerkats. When rainfall is low, breeding is less frequent.
Meerkats are considered monogamous, cooperative breeders. They live in groups, called mobs or gangs. Typically, one dominant pair within each mob reproduces and the subordinates help rear the offspring. Subordinate females are often reproductively suppressed and, if they do breed, it is during extremely productive years and at relatively low rates. Dominant female meerkats play a role in the suppressing the reproductive activity of subordinate females by means of forced exile or infanticide. Occasionally, subordinates kill the offspring of dominant females as well. Near the end of their gestation periods, dominant females often expel subordinates from the mob to protect their pups from infanticide. After the offspring of dominant females are born, subordinates return to their group and become helpers. Subordinates often help by providing food and protection to juveniles while the dominant female feeds. This helps reduce the energetic demands on dominant females during lactating periods.
Male meerkats use neck grips to calm females into a passive state during copulation. Males then mount females and grip their mates using their forepaws. Males and females also fight prior to copulation, a behavior that is thought to arouse females. (Doolan and MacDonald, 1997; Doolan and Macdonald, 1999; Ewer, 1963; Kingdon, et al., 2013; Kutsukake and Clutton-Brock, 2006; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats breed during late fall, winter, and spring. Females do not exhibit synchrony in reproductive behaviors, such as estrus, copulation timing, or parturition. Although females breed virtually year-round, they most commonly give birth at times of the year with higher temperatures and levels of precipitation.
Within a group, or mob, of meerkats, the dominant female can have multiple litters of offspring, depending on whether their initial litters fail or succeed. If offspring from early litters die young, the dominant female can have up to 4 litters per year, averaging 4 pups per litter. Studies in 1997 and 1999 reported that dominant females produced 1.8 to 1.9 per year, with 3 to 7 pups per litter. Meerkats have a gestational period between 60 and 70 days. Meerkats are born weighing 25 to 36 g, with their eyes and ears closed. However, they grow quickly, at a rate of about 4.5 g for the first 3 months, and within 5 days of birth they weigh around 100 g. Pups begin eating solid foods after 23 to 30 days, and are fully weaned at 49 to 63 days. Newborn meerkats cannot defecate or urinate without stimulation of the perineal region from their mother. A 2008 study stated the pups that emerge from the burrow at about 3 weeks of age are classified as “emergent pups” and those who survive to 3 months of age are “independent foragers”, since they were independently searching for food at this age.
Meerkats reach sexual maturity when they are around 1 year old. However, females rarely breed before they reach 3 years old. The reproductive condition of males is often dependent upon the reproductive condition of nearby females. The only notable physical change in males is the increase in size of their anal glands during the reproductive period. One study in 1980 reported the mass of male anal glands to be 0.55 g prior to reproductive maturity and 0.87 g at reproductive maturity. (Clutton-Brock, et al., 1999a; Clutton-Brock, et al., 1999b; Doolan and MacDonald, 1997; Ewer, 1973; Hodge, et al., 2008; Kingdon, et al., 2013; Lynch, 1980; van Staaden, 1994)
Both males and female meerkats exhibit parental investment towards their offspring. Females feed their pups milk until they are weaned and also help newborn pups defecate and urinate by stimulating their perineal region. Males help guard their young and protect them from predators. Both parents also groom their young and participate in playtime, which consists of play fighting. Typically, younger parents are more playful whereas older, more mature parents tend to be less playful. Other members of the social group, or mob, are also involved in rearing offspring. When mothers are foraging for food to maintain their milk supply, nonbreeding helpers guarding and provide solid food for the young. Additionally, when a large portion of a mob is out foraging simultaneously, one or more adults remain at their breeding den to care for juveniles. After about 10 to 12 weeks, juveniles no longer follow their parents closely and become more independent. (Ewer, 1963; van Staaden, 1994)
In the wild, meerkats live between 5 and 15 years. Meerkats inhabiting areas of frequent rainfall and abundant food typically live longer. Mortality rates are highest in pups and juveniles, since they are more susceptible to predation, disease, and environmental factors. A study from 2013 stated that when they are 3 to 5 weeks old, meerkat pups are most vulnerable to hypothermia, and at 5 to 12 weeks old they are susceptible to mortality by predation.
Meerkats in captivity were observed to live 12.5 to 20.6 years. (Jones, 1982; Kingdon, et al., 2013; Nowak, 1999; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats are gregarious foragers, meaning they rely on group cooperation to hunt for prey. Meerkats live in groups, also called mobs, that range in size from 2 to 50 individuals. Mobs typically consist of 2 to 3 family units, with each unit containing 1 to 3 females, up to 4 males, and their respective offspring. Mob size remains similar from year to year, but the individuals within each mob change frequently. Some meerkats stay in one group for the majority of their lives, but family units commonly separate and join other groups. Explanations for why meerkats separate from their family unit have not been reported.
Hierarchy within each meerkat mob is based on social status, with older individuals often maintaining higher social status. However, in some cases females gain a dominant role through inheritance, the outcome of aggressive competition, immigration into a group that lacks a breeding female, or by forming a new group with males that left other groups. Within each mob, males and females have separate hierarchies, both of which are divided into subordinate individuals and one dominant individual of each sex. Dominant females get food access before males and subordinate females. Subordinate females commonly care for the offspring of dominant females. While mobs are foraging, one typically acts as sentinel and alarms others of potential dangers. This duty is shared between individuals within a mob, but also depends on social status. Males, specifically older subordinate males, are often observed in this position.
Meerkats forage in groups for about 5 to 8 hours per day, staying close enough to each other to maintain visual and vocal contact. Mobs forage along different routes each day to avoid depleting food sources and allow for renewal of food sources in previously foraged areas. Meerkats forage in soil, digging out prey with their forefeet. They have been observed biting their prey - specifically scorpions - to disable it and then begin eating it starting at the head. Individuals acting as sentinels always watching from a high vantage point while others are foraging.
A study from 1963 reported meerkats in a variety of positions during their everyday activities. This study noted 4 common postures: the “low sit”, the "high sit", the "lazy sit", and "sleeping" positions. The low sit is described as an upright position where they sit on their hind legs with an extended abdomen. This position is common when meerkats are acting as lookout or basking in the sun in the early morning. The high sit occurs when they raise their bodies off of their hind feet and maintain a standing posture. This is the main lookout posture because it maximizes their view of the surrounding habitat. The lazy sit position is uncommon, but is used for resting while remaining alert. In this position, meerkats sit on their hind feet and tails, with their backs arched. Lastly, the sleeping posture is an extension of the lazy sit. Instead of remaining upright, meerkats in a sleeping posture lean over and tuck their heads between their legs to conserve body heat. Meerkats also sleep clumped together in groups as a means of further maintaining body heat. Other heat regulation behaviors include stretching out on their stomachs in shade to cool down, or lying in the sun on their backs or sides to warm up. Meerkats are diurnal and thus are frequently exposed to intense heat from the sun. To remain cool, meerkats find shade or stay in their burrows, which are coller during the day, and overall more thermically stable than ambient conditions.
Meerkats use scent to mark objects in their environment. Males have anal glands, which they use to mark objects, especially during breeding seasons. Females do not have anal glands and are not known to leave any secretions or behind, but show the same marking behavior nonetheless. It is possible that females use this method to mark objects with different chemicals, such as pheromones, but there is no current research supporting such possibility. Both sexes defecate and urinate near vertical surfaces or corners. Both sexes also exhibit anal-dragging, leg-lifting, body-rubbing, and sniffing behaviors. The anal-drag, in which an individual drags its anus across a surface in a squatted position, is used for grooming and social communication. The leg-lift is used to deposit secretions. Body-rubs and sniffing are used to pick up odors. (Clutton-Brock, et al., 1998; Doolan and MacDonald, 1996; Ewer, 1963; Kingdon, et al., 2013; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats inhabit territories between 200 and 1,000 ha of the southern Kalahari. They use scent markings to indicate territory borders, but not home-range borders. Their home ranges are generally large; a study in 1994 reported a pack of 12 living in an area encompassing approximately 15.5 km^2. Each home range can have up to 5 burrow systems separated by 50 to 100 m. Meerkat mobs have different home range sizes depending on habitat suitability and interactions with neighboring mobs. Meerkats only forage within their home range and rarely venture more than 50 m from the nearest safe burrow. (Bateman, et al., 2015; Kingdon, et al., 2013; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats rely most heavily on visual stimuli. Their eyes consist entirely of cone-shaped retina responsible for distinguishing color and lack rod-shaped retina, which are important in low-light environments. They are capable of detecting hawks and other threats from far away, but they do not demonstrate strong visual abilities in dim light or at night. Meerkats can distinguish red, blue, green, and yellow, but have difficulty with shades of grey. Furthermore, meerkats possess horizontally-elongated pupils. This is favorable for prey species that live in open habitats, since they have a greater range of peripheral vision.
Meerkats depend on their sense of smell to forage for insects in the soil. Their hearing is thought to be comparable to that of humans (Homo sapiens). However, they have a limited ability to locate the source of sounds, possibly due to the anatomy of their heads. They have small external ears, or pinnae, and they have a small inter-aural distance, which means sounds reach both of their ears at virtually the same time regardless of direction.
Meerkats have a large acoustic vocabulary and sound plays a crucial role in communication. Their vocabulary consists of three main threat sounds and approximately seven other vocalizations. Their calls can be complex and each call corresponds to a specific action or message. When threatened, meerkats most commonly use a growl, explosive spit, or harsh repetitive scolding call to deter the threat. They use sharp alarm barks to alert other meerkats of danger. When meerkats hear such sharp alarm barks, they return to their respective burrows. Other vocalizations include a neutral contact call and calls that communicate satisfaction, fear, a mix of fear and aggression, and dissatisfaction. The neutral contact call is comparable to purring in small cats (subfamily Felinae), meant to communicate a feeling of contentment. The satisfaction call is used when eating, relaxing, and resting. Meerkats use fear calls when there is possible danger of an aerial predator. The mixed fear/aggression vocalization is commonly used for danger from terrestrial threats. Finally, dissatisfaction calls are used only with conspecifics, and have only been observed in captive male meerkats. (Ewer, 1963; Kingdon, et al., 2013; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats are carnivores and are primarily insectivorous, though they also eat other arthropods and some small vertebrates. The composition of their depends on food availability, which differs depending on the season, weather, and habitat. A study in 1994 reported that meerkats consumed mostly insects, which make up 82% of their diet, but also consumed spiders (7%), centipedes (3%), millipedes (3%), reptiles (2%), amphibians (2%), and birds (1%). A 1968 study examining 18 meerkat stomachs found that 38% contained moths or butterflies (order Lepidoptera), and 21% contained beetles (order Coleoptera). In the winter, they rely primarily on moths, butterflies and beetles, while in the summer their diet is more varied, with the addition of flies (order Diptera), other arthropods, and some vertebrates. Meerkats eat snakes as well as geckos and other lizards. They dig holes deep enough to trap geckos, particularly whistling geckos (Ptenopus garrulous) and giant ground geckos (Chondrodactylus angulifer). Meerkats also eat a variety of scorpions in the genera Opistophtalmus and Parabuthus. Meerkats rarely drink water, instead obtaining fluids through their prey. During dry periods of the year, however, meerkats also acquire fluids by chewing fruits or other plant materials. (Doolan and Macdonald, 1996; Kingdon, et al., 2013; van Staaden, 1994; Zumpt, 1968)
Meerkat pups are most susceptible to predation during their first 3 months. A study in 1997 found that 30% of pup mortalities were the result of predation. The most common predators of pups and older juveniles include cape cobras (Naja nivea), martial eagles (Polemaetus bellicosus), tawny eagles (Aquila rapax), bateleurs (Terathopius ecaudatus), lanner falcons (Falco biarmicus), and pale chanting goshawks (Melierax canorus). Larger predators such as lions (Panthera leo), spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), and black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) are also considered potential predators of adult meerkats. The most dangerous and frequent predators to meerkats are jackals, martial eagles, and tawny eagles.
Meerkats actively deter some of their predators, such as jackals and cape cobras, by mobbing as a group. Mobs immediately attack certain predator species upon detection, including cape foxes (Vulpes chama), pale chanting-goshawks, and other small raptors. Meerkats tend to avoid black-backed jackals and ratels (Mellivora capensis), unless they are in a position where they cannot escape. Depending on their group size, meerkats flee to safety instead of mobbing predators. However, meerkats tend to mob predators if their group size is greater than 4 individuals.
Meerkats avoid predation using alarm calls. Meerkats have a system of calls that they use to alert conspecifics of possible predators. They emit different calls depending on the specific predator that is posing a threat. Additionally, these species-specific calls are structurally different depending on the distance between the predator and the mob.
Meerkats also exhibit anti-predator behavior through body language. When approached by a terrestrial enemy, their body posture changes. Their hair stands on end in a process known as piloerection, they arch their backs, straiten their tails, extend their legs, and slightly lower their heads. These behaviors make them appear larger, which can deter some predators from attacking. When being attacked, meerkats lie on their backs, which protects the napes of their necks, and use their claws and teeth to defend themselves. (Clutton-Brock, et al., 1999b; Doolan and MacDonald, 1997; Ewer, 1963; Hollén, et al., 2008; Kingdon, et al., 2013; Manser, 2001)
Meerkats have been observed to coexist in mutualisms with other burrowing species, including yellow mongooses (Cynictis penicillata), cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris), African white-tailed mice (Mystromys albicaudatus), highveld gerbils (Gerbilliscus brantsii), rock hyraxes (Procavia capensis), cape grey mongooses (Herpestes pulverulentus), and slender mongooses (Herpestes sanguineus). These interspecific burrowing relationships are non-competitive in terms of food and space, and thus ultimately save time and energy for all species inhabiting a given burrow.
Meerkats are hosts for a number of ecto- and endoparasites. The most common ectoparasites were fleas, including the species Ctenocephalides connatus, Echidnophaga bradyta, Echidnophaga gallinacea, Xenopsylla cryptonella, and Synosternus caffer. Other ectoparasites found on meerkats include ticks such as African bont ticks (Amblyomma hebraeum), African dog ticks (Haemaphysalis leachi), sour veld ticks (Ixodes pilosus), brown ear ticks (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus), and red-legged ticks (Rhipicephalus evertsi evertsi). Endoparasites reported in meerkats include helminth species Dipetalonema setariosum and Physaloptera rara, nematode species Toxocara suricattae and Oxynema suricattae, tapeworms Pseudandrya suricattae, and protozoans in the genera Cystoisospora and Eimeria.
Tuberculosis (Myobacterium bovis) was identified in wild meerkats. Meerkats that groom others, receive physical aggression, or rove between groups are at a higher risk of contracting tuberculosis. Meerkats are also susceptible to toxoplasmosis, caused by Toxoplasma gondii, which was observed in captive meerkats. Toxoplasmosis was responsible for the death of seven individuals in a study from 1997. Meerkats are also carriers of rabies, and are at greater risk of contracting the disease when inhabiting burrows with yellow mongooses, which are a principle vector of rabies. (Drewe, 2010; Kingdon, et al., 2013; Leclaire and Faulkner, 2014; Lynch, 1980; Morán, et al., 1997; Nel, et al., 2005; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats help control populations of butterflies and moths (order Lepidoptera), some of which cause damage to agricultural crops and pastures.
Because meerkats are social and easily tamed, they are often used for scientific studies regarding binocular vision. (Morán, et al., 1983; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats are hosts to an array of ticks that contain tick-borne diseases, such as the African tick-bite fever (caused by the bacteria species Rickettsia africae). Additionally, meerkats are a vector of rabies. Such diseases are transferable to humans and domesticated animals and can cause illness or death.
Meerkats are not aggressive, but they defend themselves with sharp teeth and claws that can injure humans. (Drewe, 2010; Nel, et al., 2005; van Staaden, 1994)
Meerkats are considered a species of “Least Concern” on the IUCN red list and are not listed in the CITES appendices or on other national or international conservation lists. There are meerkat populations present within Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, which are protected areas within South Africa and Botswana, respectively. Although meerkats are considered tobe widespread across southern Africa, local extinctions can occur during dry years. (Clutton-Brock, et al., 1999b; Kingdon, et al., 2013; Macdonald and Hoffmann, 2014)
Taylor Hill (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, April Tingle (editor), Radford University, Emily Clark (editor), Radford University, Cari Mcgregor (editor), Radford University, Jacob Vaught (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor), Special Projects.
living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.
uses sound to communicate
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
an animal which directly causes disease in humans. For example, diseases caused by infection of filarial nematodes (elephantiasis and river blindness).
either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
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.
ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates
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
Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.
An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.
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 one mate at a time.
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.
scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.
breeding is confined to a particular season
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
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement
the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.
A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.
A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.
A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.
uses sight to communicate
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
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