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Meerkat
At Victoria, Australia
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Herpestidae
Genus: Suricata
Desmarest, 1804
Species: S. suricatta
Binomial name
Suricata suricatta
(Schreber, 1776)
Meerkat range

The meerkat or suricate Suricata suricatta, a small mammal, is a member of the mongoose family. Meerkats live in all parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana 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 superfamilies have 50 or more members. Meerkats have an average life span of 12-14 years.

Contents

Name

"Meerkat" is a loanword from Afrikaans. The name has a Dutch origin but by misidentification. Dutch meerkat refers to the "guenon", a monkey of the Cercopithecus genus. The word "meerkat" is Dutch for "lake cat", but the suricata is not in the cat family, and neither suricatas nor guenons are attracted to lakes; the word possibly started as a Dutch adaptation of a derivative of Sanskrit markaṭa मर्कट = "monkey", perhaps in Africa via an Indian sailor on board a Dutch East India Company ship. The traders of the Dutch East India Company were likely familiar with monkeys, but the Dutch settlers attached the name to the wrong animal at the Cape. The suricata is called stokstaartje = "little stick-tail" in Dutch.

According to African popular belief (mainly in the Zambian/Zimbabwean region), the meerkat is also known as the sun angel, as it protects villages from the moon devil or the werewolf which is believed to attack stray cattle or lone tribesmen.

Anatomy

Meerkat in San Francisco zoo

The meerkat is a small diurnal herpestid (mongoose) weighing on average about 731 grams (1.61 pounds) for males and 720 grams (1.58 pounds) for females. Its long slender body and limbs give it a body length of 25 to 35 cm (10 to 14 inches) and an added tail length of 17 to 25 cm (7 to 10 inches). Its tail is not bushy like all other mongoose species, but is rather long and thin and tapers to a black or reddish colored pointed tip. The meerkat uses its tail to balance when standing upright. Its face tapers, coming to a point at the nose, which is brown. The eyes always have black patches around them, which help deflect the sun's glare. The meerkat has small black crescent-shaped ears that can close when digging to keep sand out. Like cats, meerkats have binocular vision, a large peripheral range, depth perception, and eyes on the front of their faces.

At the end of each of a meerkat's "fingers" is a non-retractable, strong, 2 cm (0.8 in) long, curved claw used for digging burrows and digging for prey. Claws are also used with muscular hindlegs to help climb the occasional tree. They have four toes on each foot and long slender limbs. The coat is usually fawn-colored peppered with gray, tan, or brown with a silver tint. They have short parallel stripes across their backs, extending from the base of the tail to the shoulders. The patterns of stripes are unique to each meerkat. 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.

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Meerkat-uenozoo2008.ogg
A meerkat, standing on its hind legs, looks around at Ueno Zoo in Japan.

Diet and foraging behaviour

Meerkats showing foraging behavior at the Adelaide Zoo.

Meerkats are primarily insectivores, but also eat lizards, snakes, scorpions, spiders, plants, eggs, small mammals, millipedes, centipedes and, more rarely, small birds. They are partially immune to certain venoms; they are immune to the very strong venom of the scorpions of the Kalahari Desert, unlike humans.[2] 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. Baby meerkats do not start foraging for food until they are about 1 month old, and do so by following an older member of the group who acts as the pup's tutor.[3] The meerkat standing guard makes peeping sounds when all is well. If the meerkat spots danger, it barks loudly or whistles.

Reproduction

A meerkat in the Kalahari Desert

Meerkats become sexually mature at about one year of age and can have 1 to 5 pups in a litter, with 3 pups being the most common litter size. Wild meerkats may have up to four litters per year. Meerkats are iteroparous and can reproduce any time of the year but most births occur in the warmer seasons. The pups are allowed to leave the burrow at three weeks old. When the pups are ready to emerge from the burrow, the whole clan of meerkats will stand around the burrow to watch. Some of the adolescents might try to show off so they can have more attention than the pups.

There is no precopulatory display; the male ritually grooms the female until she submits to him and copulation begins, the male generally adopting a seated position during the act. Gestation lasts approximately 11 weeks and the young are born within the underground burrow and are altricial. The young's ears open at about 15 days of age, and their eyes at 10–14 days. They are weaned around 49 to 63 days. They do not come above ground until at least 21 days of age and stay with babysitters near the burrow. After another week or so, they join the adults on a foraging party.

Usually, the alpha pair reserves the right to mate and normally kills any young not its own, to ensure that its offspring has the best chance of survival. The dominant couple may also evict, or kick out the mothers of the offending offspring.

New meerkat groups are often formed by evicted females pairing with roving males.

If the members of the alpha group are relatives (this tends to happen when the alpha female dies and is succeeded by a daughter), they do not mate with each other and reproduction is by group females stray-mating with roving males from other groups; in this situation, pregnant females tend to kill and eat any pups born to other females.

Behavior

Meerkat standing on rear legs

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 behavior within their colonies; one or more meerkats stand sentry (lookout) 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 signaling 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. On warning of danger, the babysitter takes the young underground to safety and is prepared to defend them if the danger follows. If retreating underground is not possible, she collects all young together and lies on top of them.

Meerkats are also known to share their burrow with the Yellow Mongoose and ground squirrel, species with which they do not compete for resources. If they are unlucky, sometimes they share their burrow with snakes.

Like most species, meerkat young learn by observing and mimicking adult behaviour though adults also engage in active instruction. For example, meerkat adults teach their pups how to eat a venomous scorpion: they will remove the stinger and help the pup learn how to handle the creature.[4]

Despite this altruistic behaviour, meerkats sometimes kill young members of their group. Subordinate meerkats have been seen killing the offspring of more senior members in order to improve their own offspring's position.[5]

Meerkats have been known to engage in social activities, including what appear to be wrestling matches and foot races.

Vocalization

It has recently been noted that meerkat calls may carry specific meanings, with specific calls indicating the approach of snakes, birds of prey, or other predators. How these calls work is not yet clear.

Meerkat groups

Group at Zoo Basel

A meerkat group may die out because of predator attack, its alpha pair being unable to breed, starvation in a year when the rains fail, or epidemic disease.

A new meerkat group often arises from evicted females meeting and staying with roving males, looking for chances to mate. The litter size is usually 2–5 pups.

The size of the groups is variable. A group which becomes over-large may routinely have to disperse widely to find enough food when foraging. As a result, when suddenly needing to run for shelter, members of the group may choose different holes, resulting in the group fissioning.

Subspecies

There are three subspecies of meerkat:[6]

  • Suricata suricatta siricata
  • Suricata suricatta majoriae
  • Suricata suricatta iona

See also

References

  1. ^ Macdonald, D. & Hoffmann, M. (2008). Suricata suricatta. In: IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 22 March 2009. Database entry includes a brief justification of why this species is of least concern.
  2. ^ David Attenborough, 2000. Meerkats United
  3. ^ Mighty Masked Meerkat Mobs
  4. ^ Thornton, Alex; McAuliffe, Katherine (July 14, 2006). "Teaching in Wild Meerkats". Science 313 (5784): 227–9. doi:10.1126/science.1128727. PMID 16840701. http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/313/5784/227. Retrieved 2007-01-23. 
  5. ^ Murderous Meerkat Moms Contradict Caring Image, Study Finds
  6. ^ Katie Kimble (July 1, 2003). "Meerkat Studbook Suricata suricatta North American Region" (pdf). http://library.sandiegozoo.org/studbooks/carnivores/meerkat2003.pdf. Retrieved 2010-01-15. 

External links


Simple English

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Look up Suricata suricatta in Wikispecies, a directory of species

A meerkat is a small mammal that lives in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. It is a member of the mongoose family. A group of meerkats is called a "mob","gang" or "mannor" and usually all of the meerkats are brothers and sisters.

Contents

Name

The meerkat's scientific name is Suricata suricatta. Some people call meerkats "suricates". People in South Africa call the meerkat the sun angel. The name "meerkat" was invented by the Afrikaans language and the Dutch language.

How Meerkats Act

Meerkats live in holes in the ground called burrows. They are active during the day, and they also live in large family groups. The group is led by a female and a male. The meerkats are often all family. They get rid of fleas in each other's fur to become friends, which is called "grooming". Sometimes if a minor member is in trouble with the leader it will groom the leader to try and calm them down.

The meerkats help each other. When the family is eating or playing together, one meerkat takes time out and looks for animals that might want to eat meerkats. If he or she sees one, then he gives a chirp and the group runs to a burrow to be safe. Also, when pups are looking for food, adults bring them food and teach them how to eat it.

Before pups start looking for food with the group, they are babysat by older members at the burrow to protect them from danger. Sometimes a female who never gave birth will produce milk for the pups.

Meerkats can share their burrows with many different animals, such as other mongooses and sometimes squirrels who live on the ground. Sometimes even a snake will share the burrow with a meerkat.

Despite the family bond of meerkats, sometimes a female might kill another female's pups. The leader might also kick out some females from the group. Males sometimes leave the group for a short time to look for females in other groups to mate with.

Meerkats have many different chirps that they use for different reasons. They have a different chirp for being friends, anger, and for warning of an animal that will eat them.

Eating behavior

Meerkats eat mostly insects, but they also eat lizards, snakes, spiders, birds, plants, eggs and other small mammals. Like all members of the mongoose family, meerkats cannot be hurt by some venoms, and they eat scorpions (including the stinger) and some snakes, without fear of illness, poison or death. They have no extra body fat, so they must look for food every day and eat food every day.

When the meerkat group is eating, a guard will stand up and look for any animals that might eat its family. If the guard sees an animal, it gives a loud chirp and the family will run to a hole to be safe. Many animals eat meerkats. Most eagles, hawks, and falcons will eat them. Baby meerkats, called "pups" are sometimes also eaten by snakes. Jackals and other big animals that eat meat will sometimes eat meerkats.

When pups are looking for food, they will cry loudly and an adult will come and feed them. At first the adult gives the pup a dead animal, then when the pup is older, the adult will bring a live animal but will hurt it so the pup can kill it easier. Then the adults start bringing live animals that are healthy, and when the pup gets the hang of eating these, the adults stop bringing food.

The Meerkat Body

The meerkat is a small mongoose that is awake during the day. They weigh about one and a half pounds and the meerkat is ten to fourteen inches long. The meerkat uses its tail to balance because it stands up on its back legs to look for animals that would eat it. The eyes have black patches to lessen the bright light that comes into its eyes. Meerkats have very long claws that help them dig and fight. The back of the meerkat is furry and it has stripes to help it not be seen by predators. The front side is black and has no fur because it needs to get warm in the morning to be ready for the day. Meerkats also have ears that can open and close. They close in order to keep sand out when they are burrowing.

Having Children

The meerkat is old enough to have children at one year. Meerkats can have one to seven babies at one time. Four is the most common. Meerkats can give birth at any time of the year but like to give birth in spring and summer because there is more food. Female meerkats can have up to three litters in one year. When the babies are born they are pink and have no hair. Their eyes and ears are closed. When they are three weeks old, the mother allows them to get out of the burrow. By this time their eyes and ears have opened and they have light brown fur. The babies cannot be left alone so one of the other meerkats besides the mother stays behind to watch them.

After the mother mates with the father, the babies develop for eleven weeks. Then she gives birth in a burrow. She feeds the babies milk until they start looking for food with the rest of the group, which is when they turn one month old.

The leader of the group is a girl and her mate is the male leader. This pair do not allow other minor members of their family to have babies. If a female goes, then the leader kicks her out and sometimes the leader kills her grandchildren. Most of the meerkats in a group are either the leader's brothers and sisters or children.

New meerkat groups form when a female is kicked out and she teams up with a male and starts a new family.

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