Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are a kind of mongoose living in the Kalahari Desert. They are cooperatively breeding diurnal mammals and have extensive social networks. Meerkats live in groups or communities called mobs or gangs. Such communities can number up to 40 members at a time and can live up to 10 years in wild. An adult Meerkat weighs around two pounds and is about 12 inches high when standing. (Meerkat info, 2005) Life in Kalahari Desert: The Meerkats live in the Kalahari Desert, although with over 250 mm of rainfall Kalahari is not a true desert.
The desert has an abundance of plants and animals which are well adapted to living in such harsh environment. In the desert, the summer temperature can reach up to 40 degree centigrade and in winters it can drop to below zero degrees centigrade. (Discovery, 2008). Although water on the surface is scarce, there is quite a bit of moisture below the sand. These harsh conditions mean that animals must learn to survive on the little available food and learn to avoid predators. The entire social system of the Meerkats, their diet and their burrows are designed to beat the natural dangers of the life in the desert.
Burrow Systems: Meerkats do not maintain internal thermoregulations. This means that in order to adapt to the extreme temperatures in the desert, they must device other methods. Meerkats have sophisticated burrow systems consisting of extensive networks to protect them from the heat of the desert sun. A typical Meerkat burrow may have up to 70 different entrances, tunnels and sleeping chambers. The huge numbers of entrances also serve as exit in the event of an attack or flooding inside the burrow. When outside, these entrances provide a quick way to escape to safety in the event of a predator attack.
Meerkats also build a number of bolt holes between the burrows to help them take cover in case of danger. Inside the burrows, the Meerkat behavior depends on the weather conditions. During winters, they sleep cuddled together, often on top of each other while in the summer months they tend to space out. Also the sleeping chambers are six to eight feet underground keeping a comparatively constant temperature levels throughout the year. Meerkats are extremely territorial and a gang can maintain one to three square miles of area depending on the size of the group and availability food and water.
They often mark their territory through anal or saliva secretions and protect their territory ferociously. Within this territory, a typical Meerkat gang can have 6-15 dens and they move their dens every few days, except when they are breeding. During breeding time, they stay in the same burrow for three weeks since the young once cannot come out of the burrow before that. However they change their sleeping chambers daily. Meerkats often share their burrows with yellow mongoose and squirrels. This does not affect Meerkats since they do not compete with these species for food. However, yellow mongoose is known to eat Meerkat pups.
So during breeding season, they try to keep yellow mongoose away from their dens. They also do not allow snakes to use their burrows, often attacking them in the open to deter them from using their burrows. Predation: Meerkats face predatory threat from various sources. The main predators of Meerkats include jackals and eagles. Meerkats have developed several techniques to protect themselves from predators. These include the extensive burrow networks, the bolt holes and the “sentry duty” system while foraging. The color of their fur, tan and brown, also helps them blend into the desert sand making it difficult for the predators to see them.
Diet and Foraging Habits. : Meerkats do not depend on any one kind of food and eat whatever is available. They always forage for food in groups with one of the group members standing as a “sentry”. The sentry keeps a lookout for any predators and gives a loud bark when it sees danger. The Meerkats forage in large groups but independently and try to remain as close to each other as possible. Still during winter seasons, when food is scarce, they can go as far as 150 feet from each other. They have specially adapted claws to search for their food, which is usually found underground.
Meerkats spend most of their waking hours foraging for food. Typically, a Meerkat losing 5% of its body weight overnight. As a result, they need to eat and search for food daily. The scarcity of food means that they can spend the entire day searching for enough food to satisfy themselves. Meerkats are mainly insectivorous but eat anything they can find. Meerkat diet includes worms, insects, insect larvae, small rodents, lizards, small snakes, birds, eggs and fruits. Meerkats also enjoy poisonous scorpions which are plentiful in the desert. While eating scorpions, they quickly bite of their stingers and then eat the rest.
Meerkats have been known to teach their youngsters how to eat a scorpion (Thornton, 2006). They are also immune to a number of deadly venoms, which increases the variety of their diet. Meerkat need for water is also limited as they get all their water requirements from their food. However, if water source is available, they will use it. Defending Territory: As mentioned above, Meerkats are extremely territorial. Meerkats will defend their territories ferociously if they see an intruder. These intruders could be Meerkats from neighboring groups, newly formed groups or males who have left their own groups in search of a female.
(Kalahari Meerkat Project). When faced with such intruders, Meerkats go all out to defend their territory. The most cost effective way to defend territory is to through scent markings. However, when needed, Meerkats do not hesitate to get into a fight with an invading band. Defending their territory is imperative for Meerkats since if the territory is taken over by another gang, they would have to look for a different territory and build a new system of burrows. Since burrows are extremely important for their survival, Meerkats cannot afford to lose their burrows to a rival gang.
Hence, when faced with threat to their territory, Meerkats get together to fight off an invading gang. Another reason for defending territories is the nature of their reproduction system discussed below. In a gang of Meerkats, only one couple, the alpha male and the alpha female have the right to reproduce. Invasion from foreigners can threaten their dominance in the gang. So the defense of territory could also be to prevent competition to reproductive opportunities. (Fitzpatrick, 2004). Reproduction: Perhaps the most interesting feature of Meerkat social behavior is their reproductive system.
In a gang of Meerkats only the alpha male and the alpha female are allowed to reproduce. The breeding couples are usually not related. Since all the members of a gang are siblings or offspring of the alpha couple, they do not mate. Although Meerkats can mate throughout the year, availability of resources limit the mating season. After rain, there is an increase in rain which increases the population of insects. The abundance of food makes it the perfect season for mating. When food is scarce, it is difficult for the pregnant alpha female to satisfy her dietary needs.
Hence the reproductive success of Meerkats depends on rain. Other than the alpha male and female, other members of the gang are not allowed to mate. Meerkats become sexually mature at the age of 10 months. However, as long as they are with the gang, they are not allowed to mate. During the mating season, the alpha female drives away all the females above 10 months of age. This is to ensure her dominant status in the group. Sometimes these subordinate females may get pregnant from males of other gangs and try to sneak in her offspring among those of the alpha female’s pups.
If the alpha female finds out about this, she will kill and eat these babies. Around the age of three years, the subordinate males emigrate outside the gang in search of a female mate. Similarly, around the age of three years, the alpha female will drive out the subordinate females from the gang. These males and females may then get together to form a new gang. Social System and Kinship: The Meerkats need to live in social groups in order to survive. A lonely Meerkat is prone to being eaten by the predators. The mammals have adapted for survival in groups. The different members of the gang play different roles.
During foraging, one of the gang members does the sentry duty to warn the other Meerkats in case of predator sightings. When the pups are young, Meerkats take turn babysitting them. This kinship is extremely strong. Also, Meerkats never mate within the gang. Incest seems to be prohibited. Conclusion: Meerkats are very social animals who depend on each other and cooperation within the group in order to survive. The social structure of Meerkats is such that it does not allow competition within the gang. There is a lot more which needs to be studied about the Meerkats. However, what we know about them make extremely interesting animals.
Reference Fitzpatrick, K. (2004). “Meerkats”. Retrieved on 17 November 2008 http://www. bio. davidson. edu/people/vecase/Behavior/Spring2004/fitzpatrick/fitzpatrick. htm “Kalahari Desert”. Discovery Channel. Retrieved on 17 November 2008 from http://www. discoverychannel. co. uk/animalplanet/meerkat_manor/flash/kalahari/page2/index. shtml Kalahari Meerkat Project. (2007). Retrieved on 17 November 2008. http://www. kalahari-meerkats. com/index. php? id=about-meerkats Meerkat Info. (2005). Retrieved on 17 November 2008 from http://www. meerkats. net/info. htm Thornton, A. (2006). “Teaching in Wild Meerkats”. Science 313(5784). 227-229.