The Afrikaans name Meerkat refers to either the Yellow Mongoose or the Suricate, and is a derivate of a Dutch terms denoting a diet of ants.
The Suricate is most frequently seen balanced on its rear legs and tail, while surveying its surroundings. The buff-brown to silvery body has rows of reddish-brown spots along the back. The eyes are distinctively dark-ringed. Head and body measures 250-310 mm and tail 200-240 mm. An adult weighs about 620-960 grams. They have dark-tipped, short-haired, tapered tails. Hindquarters are stockier than forequarters. The head is broad and rounded, with a sharp-pointed muzzle.
Suricates feed on insects, small rodents, geckos and snakes which they catch with lightning swiftness. Pregnant and lactating females forage more intensively than other members of the group, to meet the increased energy budget associated with pregnancy or lactation. There are no differences between the diets of different sex or age groups.
Mature females practice a seasonal breeding order which, amongst others, allow for no more than one female to breed at the same time within the same group. Breeding females can produce between one and three litters per year, but breeding intervals are rainfall dependent. Births peak between January and March. The entire group participates in the care and maintenance of young. While the pack is out foraging for food, one helper remains at the den to tend to the young.
Suricates are normally territorial. Average group size is ten members, comprised of equal numbers of males and females. They are also diurnal, and take refuge in burrows at night or when threatened.
- A family group of meerkats can be called a ‘mob, gang or clan’. These groups usually contain around 20 meerkats but sometimes have as many as 50.
- Meerkats live on average 7 – 10 years in the wild, and 12 – 14 years in captivity.
- Adult meerkats are about 25 – 35 cm tall when standing upright.
- The meerkat uses its tail to balance when standing upright. They often stand up in the morning to absorb heat on their bellies after a long cold desert night.
- Meerkats are very good at digging, they have long, strong, curved claws that they use for digging burrows.
- Within their territory the clan usually have up to 5 different burrows that they sleep in at night. The burrows have multiple entrances and can be 5 m deep.
Meerkats live in areas of clumpy grassland and deserts in the southern area of Africa, including the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, the Namib Desert in Namibia and southwestern Angola. In South Africa they are endemic to the subregionand have a westerly distribution, ranging from the North-West Province, southwards to the Free State through the Karoo almost to Cape Town, and westwards to the Atlantic seaboard.
Meerkat calls may carry specific meanings, with particular calls indicating the type of predator and the urgency of the situation. In addition to alarm calls, meerkats also make panic calls, recruitment calls, and moving calls – and chirrup, trill, growl, or bark, depending on the circumstances.
Meerkats make different alarm calls depending upon whether they see an aerial or a terrestrial predator. Six different predatory alarm calls with six different meanings have been identified: aerial predator with low, medium, and high urgency; and terrestrial predator with low, medium, and high urgency. For a high-urgency land predator alarm call, meerkats will scatter down their nearest burrow entrance. For a high-urgency aerial predator alarm call, they will crouch down and may look skyward.