Scientific name: Suricatta suricatta
Country: South Africa, Southern Botswana, Namibia, Angola.
Diet: Insects - insectivore, insect larvae - larvivore, insect pupae - pupivore, tubers (for moisture) - radicivore, fruits - frugivore. In the Zoo they are given insects (crickets and mealworms), dead chicks, mice, sprats, minced meat, chopped fruit, dog biscuits and a specially balanced diet supplement.
Food & feeding: Omnivore
Habitats: Tropical grassland, desert and semi-desert
Conservation status: Not Threatened
Relatives: Dwarf mongoose, banded mongoose
Description: Meerkats are one of the most charismatic of the small mammals. They are only about 24 cm long with a 20 cm tail and weigh only a few hundred grams. Their bodies are rather skinny and their limbs slender. Their eyes are surrounded by black smudges, which may help to limit the glare of the sun in the desert. A series of dark bands run across the back. They often stand up straight on their rear legs, with front legs held neatly in front of their chests.
Lifestyle: Meerkats are active by day, taking shelter in their warm burrows against the chill of the night. The burrows are complex and may have up to 90 entrances and several different levels. They usually stay within sprinting distance of this burrow complex, but launch food hunting missions out into the surrounding area. Together they will cheerfully attack potentially dangerous prey such as scorpions, returning to the burrow with choice items of food to feed the young.
Family & friends: They are sociable animals, living in groups of about 10-20, and they take turns to act as look-out from a high branch or rock, warning the rest of the group of any approaching danger. Their main enemies are birds of prey. They often stand up on hind legs while on guard. The colonies are close knit with each meerkat taking on special duties e.g. sentry, baby-sitter, and hunter, to benefit the group as a whole.
Keeping in touch: Territories are hotly defended and the borders are scent-marked by the males using a smelly substance produced from glands near the anus. While looking for food, group members keep in touch by making a soft murmuring sound. Clucks and barks indicate a predator threat and will cause all of the group to scramble furiously back to the burrow.
Growing up: Meerkats are sexually mature at about one year old. Mating takes place throughout the year and pregnancy lasts 11 weeks. They have two to five young in a litter, each weighing about 30 grams. The young emerge from the burrow at three weeks and are weaned at seven to nine weeks. They can live up to 12 years in captivity.
Meerkats like to sunbathe. Nights in the semi-desert can be very cold. In the morning, to help them warm up, they will often stretch out in the sun all the while keeping a watchful eye out for predators.