Animal of the Issue: Meerkat

One of Zoo Atlanta’s meerkats in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo Credit / Briana Magistro
One of Zoo Atlanta’s meerkats in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo Credit / Briana Magistro
One of Zoo Atlanta’s meerkats in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo Credit / Briana Magistro

By Briana Magistro

SC Staff Writer

Almost ten years ago, the show “Meerkat Manor” was one of the most viewed shows on educational television, reaching its peak on Animal Planet in 2007. This all-natural reality show followed the Whiskers family throughout four seasons of ups and downs.

This documentary displayed meerkat behavior in a way never documented before. Although “Meerkat Manor” reached thousands of viewers, most people could not tell you much about the meerkat’s biology!

Meerkats are part of the mongoose family, including other species native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. They also reside in the suborder Feliformia, a broad group of animals displaying a specific bone formation in their ears.

Other animals in this group include cats and hyenas. All of these animals are carnivores, although their diets vary greatly.

Insects and invertebrates, including centipedes and scorpions, are first on the meerkat’s menu. Meerkats are immune to the scorpion’s venom.

Meerkats will also indulge on snakes and small lizards. They have even been known to dine on small mammals, like shrews.

When foraging for food, one member of the family will keep watch, usually finding an elevated viewpoint, like rock formations or trees. The lookout will make loud warning calls if a threat is nearby. Upon hearing the warning signal, the clan will take cover where available, or retreat to their den.

Meerkats exhibit long claws for digging up food or making dens. They also use their claws to climb trees or brush for lookout positions.

They have tan, yellow, or gray coats with gray, black, and brown stripes or spots. Their patterns are unique and are used within research projects to differentiate individuals.

Meerkats also have the “Serengeti sunglasses,” or dark markings around their eyes. This marking pattern is common in desert mammalian predators to help them see in the bright sun.

Baseball players who use black paint underneath their eyes employ the same concept. Other animals that display these facial markings include the cheetah and the African wild dog.

The meerkat’s skin is black. This helps to keep their skin from burning. They have a relatively bare patch on their bellies, which is exposed when they stand up. The dark skin absorbs heat, helping to warm up the meerkats in the cool mornings of the desert.

Families, or clans, are made up of over a dozen individuals, and have been known to grow to over 40 members.

Meerkat societies are matriarchal, meaning that there is a female head. An alpha couple leads the family, and this couple is the only pair freely allowed to reproduce.

Commonly, other females reproduce, but their offspring are in danger.

Like with lions, any babies from any other female besides the alpha are subject to judgment and possibly death. This is to ensure that the alpha’s offspring have the best chance at reaching adulthood.

The female who broke the rules may even be exiled from the clan and forced to survive on her own. Typically, exiled females do not survive, as they lack a protective group and ample foraging territory.

However, this is how most new clans begin.

It is also possible that the alpha female may let her relative’s babies survive, and may even help to nurse them. All females capable of lactating will do so when there is a new litter. They will also act as babysitters when the rest of the clan goes foraging.

Although this species has an advanced hierarchical system, they face many natural predators. These enemies come in all shapes and sizes, including hawks, eagles, jackals, and venomous snakes.

Some of these predators, like the snakes, may follow meerkats into their dens, their only hiding place.

The other main danger for meerkats is another rival clan. Rival clans, including those of exiles, encroach on territory, reducing the supply of food and other resources.

Some encounters are harmless and even involve shouting contests. Others end in bloody scenes.

Fights end when one clan’s alphas are dead, or when one clan retreats. The latter is the more common ending, although wounds from fights can become fatal later.

Some clans, however, live harmoniously, sharing outer edges of territories. The amiability of neighboring clans typically depends on the hostility of the alpha couple, or on how scarce food is during a dry season.

Meerkats are found in many major zoos, including Zoo Atlanta in Atlanta Georgia, and the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington D.C.

Meerkats are too territorial to be kept as pets, and they require copious amounts of socialization and attention.

These animals display amazing organizational and socialization skills. To see them up close, try to visit a zoo that has a meerkat exhibit. There are also many research projects currently being conducted with meerkats in South Africa.

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