Who hasn’t seen the delightful TV documentary series “Meerkat Manor” put on by Animal Planet about seven years ago and wanted to see these funny smiley little mammals in the flesh? We camped recently on the farm Terra Rouge on the Namibian side of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, and were amused to see that the owners named the campsite area “Meerkat Manor”because of the abundance of suricates. They claimed to have many clans living on the farm, but although there was evidence of their burrows, they were nowhere to be seen until we drove out of the farm gate and found some watching the world go by on the main road to Mata Mata!
The sandy terrain of the Kalahari is the ideal habitat for meerkats or suricates (Suricata suricatta) as they live underground in shallow communicated burrows accessed by a network of tunnels. These living quarters are often shared with ground squirrels and mongooses and the odd snake that preys on their young! They emerge from these burrows during the day to warm themselves after a cold Kalahari night and to forage for food in the form of insects, birds eggs, bulbs and small invertebrates. They are perfectly adapted for burrowing and foraging as they have long claws on the ends of their toes.
Because of all the hazards of living in an environment where others want to eat them, meerkats have to be on guard all the time to protect themselves. They never stray far from their burrows whilst socializing or hunting. Sentries are strategically posted and by standing upright on two legs, supported by their strong tails, they keep a look out for predators and warn the clan with a series of alarm calls. The clan then hides underground until the sentries give them the all-clear to resurface. Sentry duty lasts for about an hour at a time.
Gangs comprise of up to thirty members (sometimes more), mostly all related to the alpha male and female of the group who scent-mark them to establish authority and territory. They can breed up to four times a year, having between three and five babies at a time. The young surface from the burrows at about three weeks of age and are then afforded protection by the others in the clan. Females without young are able to lactate to assist with the rearing of the pups.
Suricates are sociable creatures that spend a lot of time grooming and licking each other. They also spend much of their day teaching pups how to hunt and forage for food, and they like to play with each other. In spite of their obvious bonding in clans, they can also be quite vicious towards each other, killing off unwanted family members at certain times. They can live up to seven years in the wild and much longer in captivity.
Meerkats are members of the mongoose family.