The Not So Hakuna Matata Life Of Meerkats

Meerkats are mammals that belong to the mongoose family with the scientific name Suricata suricatta. They have become well-known after their portrayal in media such as The Lion King and Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor. Meerkats are not in danger of becoming endangered but they do play a vital role in maintaining the ecological balance by controlling pest levels and providing food for larger predators. Their natural habitat is located in the Kalahari Desert and spans countries such as Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Survival does not come easy to small mammals living in harsh desert conditions so it comes as no surprise that meerkats have developed their own structural and behavioral adaptations in order to survive.

Daily Life of a Meerkat

Meerkats live in a group called a mob or gang. A mob typically consists of anywhere between 6 to 30 members. The mob has both a dominant male and female, but the mob is matriarchal so the dominant female is in control. Most of the mob is directly related to the dominant female, as usually only the dominant pair are allowed to reproduce. The meerkats’ tight communal society is one of the reasons why they have survived so successfully. Each member of the mob has a certain job to do and they all work together for the survival of the mob. Alone, one meerkat would be easy prey for larger predators but when working together they become a formidable bunch. One of the most important roles for a meerkat is the role of a sentry. Meerkats are diurnal meaning that they are active during the day and sleep at night. When the meerkats rise each morning to scavenge, the first sentry comes out of the burrow to see if there is any danger nearby. When the coast is clear the other meerkats move outside to look for food. There is always at least one meerkat on sentry duty and they change shifts  hourly with other meerkats so that everyone can go look for food. The sentry’s job is to look for any incoming danger whether it be from the sky or land so they typically find a high vantage point to look from. While on sentry duty meerkats typically adopt the lookout pose meerkats are famous for, which means they stand on their hind legs while using their tail as a tripod.

 

sentry
Meerkat Sentry 

Adaptations 

Meerkats are small mammals that reach a height of about 12 inches. They have light brown fur with dark stripes on their back. The color of their fur helps them to blend in with the ground better so that predators such as eagles have a hard time spotting them from afar. Meerkats’ fur is also dark around their eyes. This dark patch helps to eliminate glare from the sun so that they can be better lookouts. That’s the same reason why baseball and football players paint dark stripes beneath their eyes. It can get cold at night in the desert so the fur on the meerkats’ bellies is thin, so that during the day they can warm themselves up by laying belly up in the sun.

sunbathing
Meerkats Warming Up

Burrowing is an important part of meerkat survival and they have several adaptations to facilitate it. The most noticeable adaptation is their long claws. These claws serve to help meerkats dig their big complex burrows where they seek shade and sanctuary against predators. Meerkats have multiple burrows with multiple exits throughout their territory. They rotate between their burrows every couple of weeks in order to not use up all of their food supply and for cleanliness. The claws also help them dig for food. Meerkats are omnivores so they can hunt small predators but they mostly eat lizards, bugs, and scorpions. Adult meerkats are immune to scorpion poison and will cut off the scorpion tail for baby meerkats. When burrowing, dirt tends to fly everywhere so instead of having to close their eyes, meerkats have a clear protective membrane on their eyes that prevents particles from getting into their eyes. Meerkats’ ears are also designed to keep dirt out by having the ability to close. Even when the ears are closed meerkats can still hear any alarming calls.

scorpion
Meerkat Eating Scorpion 

Communication

Communication between meerkats is key to everything working smoothly in the meerkat mob. The meerkats’ language is complex and they even have different alarms for different predators. The sentries constantly emit an “all clear” sound while scanning for danger. If they do see a predator they would emit a different sound that either tells the meerkats to run for cover in the burrows or gang up to scare off the threat depending on the situation. All of the meerkats are in constant communication with each other. When outside all meerkats emit a noise so that everyone knows where everyone is in case anyone needs help. The further apart a member of the mob is, the louder the noise it will produce.

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My Picture of a Meerkat Mob at Lincoln Park Zoo

All of these adaptations and behaviors help the meerkats to survive the harsh desert. Without burrows, support, and communication these small mammals would have been easily picked off by eagles, lions, and other predators. They live up to their name of a ‘mob’ as together they have found a way to survive and thrive. The meerkats’ life is certainly not worry free and they work very hard towards the goal of staying alive.

 

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