Meerkats – aren’t they the cutest little animals on the African savanna?
Chances are you know them from their most famous representation, Timone, the cheeky meerkat in The Lion King (a classic safari movie!). But other than their taste for insects and bugs (or “grubs” as Timone would say), there are a lot of interesting facts about meerkats that the movie didn’t get into. Read on for a few fun facts and interesting details that will make it clear why meerkats are interesting and unique creatures.
First things first, what constitutes a meerkat? During your African safari, if you are travelling around the southern parts of the continent, you might hear locals refer to both the actual meerkat as well as yellow mongoose as “meerkats”.
So how do you know which is which? While both are of the family Herpestidae, the meerkat falls into the eusocial side of the lineage while the yellow mongoose is part of the solitary side. Considered side by side, they are about the same size, but the meerkat has a longer snout than the yellow mongoose, as well as dark circles around its eyes, which gives it a “friendlier” look.
Latin name: Suricata suricatta
Group name: Mob or gang
Size: 0.3 m
Skip to: Characteristics, Range & habitat, Diet, Behaviour, Fun facts, Video
The meerkat is characterised by its broad head, long legs, and thin tail. Its coat varies from light grey to yellowish-brown in colour with a somewhat brindled coat pattern as well as bands. Most noticeable are its foreclaws, which are long and sturdy, specially adapted for digging in the ground and constructing the labyrinth burrows in which they live. They typically weigh less than a kilo and have a length of about 30 cm.
What is very interesting about these animals however is how they have adapted to the harsh desert climate of their habitats. Meerkats thermoregulate, keeping their body temperature at around 38.3 °C during the day and 36.3 °C at night. Moreover, their burrows have microclimates and offer comfortable environments during the hottest and coldest times of day.
Range & habitat
If you are dying to see a meerkat in the wild, make sure you book your trip to the southern part of Africa, namely Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, where meerkats are most commonly found. Considering that they spend a fair amount of time on the lookout for predators, it’s no wonder that meerkats prefer open plains with short grasses and shrubs, like those found in the Kalahari, to forested or more densely vegetated areas.
Timone may have loved insects but what The Lion King left out was the remarkable variety of small creatures meerkats feed on. Frogs, beetles, eggs, lizards, and even birds, not to mention the plants and seeds that make it into their diet. A meerkat gang will spread out to forage for food, keeping tabs on one another while they do so, with a few individuals on the lookout for danger, standing in their characteristic upright position.
Behaviour & lifestyle
A meerkat gang is made up of multiple family units organised into a group of about 30 individuals. These gangs are usually led by a dominant individual, either male or female. Subordinate individuals may often not be able to breed, with the dominant female killing a subordinate female’s pups or kicking her out of the gang.
And while these subordinates may find mates outside of their gang during mating season, others might even go so far as to kill the dominant meerkat’s pups. Usually, however, all the individuals within the gang take care of the pups born into it.
Fun meerkat facts
- Meerkats are quite cute to behold, but it’s perhaps their success at attacking and killing snakes that have entrusted them near human settlements – and often even tamed.
- Tame meerkats are, as with most wild animals kept as pets, not a good idea, as these creatures can be quite aggressive, especially when they become sexually mature or have babies. In fact, encounters between different packs in the wild are quite dramatic and often end with the death of a few individuals.
- The burrows in which meerkats live are extensive underground networks, typically 5 m in diameter with more than two levels of tunnels. To create these burrows, meerkats will form a line in a head-to-toe fashion, scooping the soil out with their forepaws and passing it to the next individual between their hind legs.
- Meerkats have communal latrines, which aren’t inside the burrows but close by.
- By night meerkats huddle together in groups before falling asleep.
- Meerkats are a member of a group of animals known as the shy five.
Meet the meerkat
Did you enjoy learning more about the meerkat? Have you ever met this unique creature face-to-face? Tell us about your meerkat experience in the comment section below. Because those who care share!
Patou, M.; Mclenachan, P. A.; Morley, C. G.; Couloux, A.; Jennings, A. P.; Veron, G. (2009). “Molecular phylogeny of the Herpestidae (Mammalia, Carnivora) with a special emphasis on the Asian Herpestes”. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 53 (1): 69–80. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2009.05.038.
Macdonald, D. W. “Suricata suricatta Meerkat (Suricate)”. In Kingdon, J.; Happold, D.; Hoffmann, M.; Butynski, T.; Happold, M.; Kalina, J. (eds.). Mammals of Africa. V – Carnivores, Pangolins, Equids and Rhinoceroses. Bloomsbury. pp. 347–352. ISBN 978-1-4081-8994-8.
Skinner, J. D.; Chimimba, C. T. (2005). van der Horst, D. (ed.). The Mammals of the Southern African Subregion (3rd ed.). Cape Town: Cambridge University Press. pp. 428–432. ISBN 978-0521844185.