Meerkats, also known as "suricates", are rather comical looking creatures who, although they look somewhat like a cross between a prairie dog and a small cat, are actually part of the Mongoose Family. These diminutive mammals usually weigh about two pounds and stand approximately 12 inches tall, with tails as long as between seven-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half inches long. These creatures are well known for standing on their hind legs while surveying their surroundings. In doing so, they utilize their keen alert eyes, and a steady, ever watchful gaze. Meerkats have distinctive dark patches around their eyes, which help them to cut down the harsh glare from the African sun. The animals are also equipped with lengthy, non-retractable claws, which enable them to burrow into the dusty earth.
As omnivores, meerkats can consume all manner of plant as well as animal material for nutritional purposes. Their typical diet is composed of a variety of fruits, scrubs, spiders, insects, snails, lizards, birds, and rodents. It is interesting to note that mature meerkats are immune to the usually deadly venom found in scorpions, thus they have the unique ability to dine on these dangerous arachnids without suffering ill effects. Meerkats are crafty creatures who use their finely tuned sense of smell to search out and locate their prey. Like most of their activities, meerkats hunt as groups, with one member assuming the role of lookout in order to ensure the safety of the rest of the group, or "mob".
Habitat and Range
Although meerkats are popular inhabitants in many zoos throughout the world, in the wild these distinctive animals0 are only native to a relatively small portion of our planet. These creatures originate in the southern part of the continent of Africa. Specifically, they can be found in the wilds of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, parts of the Namibian Desert in Namibia, as well as in the countries of South Africa and Angola. There is not a vast number of species capable of surviving the dry conditions of these desert environments but, due in part to their proficient burrowing skills, meerkats are highly suited to living in the harsh arid conditions inherent to such challenging landscapes.
Meerkats are social animals who live together in groups within underground tunnels. They are often seen in their characteristic erect stances, which serve to allow the animals to keep guard over their family members and other fellow group members. This action is necessary for the survival of these so-called mobs, because meerkats are often prey for large birds, which have the overwhelming physical strength to overpower them, carry them off, and eat them. Meerkats live in groups of 20 to 50 members, also referred to as gangs, and are led by a dominant couple known as an "alpha pair". In the wild, these African animals live to reach approximately eight years of age. In captivity, however, their lifespan can increase to 13 or so years.
On average, meerkats give birth to two to four cubs per year. However, a female meerkat is capable of having up to eight babies at a time. Their gestation period lasts for eight weeks, and the actual birthing process takes place within their custom-made burrow systems. At birth, meerkats cannot see or hear and can only drink milk for the first three weeks of life. Rearing of the offspring (also known as pups) is a cooperative activity, with mothers and fathers alike, as well as the siblings, taking part in caring for and teaching the newborn young. Meerkats reach the age of maturity at about one and a half years of age.