Some species of animals are interesting not only in themselves, but also as a social structure. Such is the meerkat. It is most interesting to watch their life when they demonstrate their natural habits among their own kind in full glory. Despite the fact that the meerkat evokes sympathy at first sight and touches a person, in reality they are very cruel towards their relatives and are even considered one of the most bloodthirsty animals.
It is surprising that, along with this, meerkats are accustomed to teamwork, that is, despite the fact that they are able to kill their comrade, they really need it. Meerkats have a rather warm relationship with people, they have long lived in houses, like cats, catching rodents and insects.
View origin and description
Meerkats as a species belong to the mongoose family, order predators, suborder cat-like. Meerkats are not particularly similar to cats, the body shape is very different, and the habits and lifestyle are completely different. Although many evolutionists claim that the first felids appeared in the mid-Eocene period of about 42 million years, the “common ancestor” of this entire group has not yet been discovered in paleontology. But on the other hand, an extinct species of meerkats was discovered, which led to the idea that these animals evolved from the striped mongoose that lives in southern Africa.
Title «meerkat» comes from the system name of the species Suricata suricatta. Sometimes in the literature there is a second name for the animal: fine-tailed myrkat. In fiction and TV shows, meerkats are often referred to as «solar angels». They got such a name due to the fact that at the moment of their vertical stand under the sunlight, the animal's coat shimmers beautifully and looks as if the animal itself glows.
The body of the meerkat is slender. The body of the animal is proportional. It has high legs with four-toed feet and a long thin tail. On the front paws, meerkats have strong claws that serve them for digging holes and for getting insects from the ground. Also, the body of the animal is covered with thick fur.
Appearance and features
Meerkat — the beast is small, only 700-1000 grams by weight. Slightly smaller than a cat. The body is elongated, about 30-35 centimeters along with the head. About 20-25 centimeters more is occupied by the tail of the animal. They have it thin, like a rat's, set to the tip. Meerkats use their tails as balancers. For example, when the animals stand on their hind legs, or when they repel snake attacks. At the time of the fight with the snake, the animal can use the tail as a bait and a decoy.
It is very easy to measure the length of the meerkat's body while it is watching something, standing on its hind legs. This position meerkats take very often. Almost every time they want to look into the distance. They use full-length growth so that the angle of view gives the view as far as possible. So nature has adapted these animals to see a predator still far from their own location.
Females have six nipples on their stomachs. She can feed the cubs in any position, even standing on her hind legs. Females are larger than males and are considered the main ones. The paws of meerkats are rather short, thin, sinewy and very powerful. The fingers are long with claws. With the help of them, meerkats are able to quickly dig the ground, dig holes, and move quickly.
The muzzle is small, relatively broad at the ears and very narrow towards the nose. The ears are located on the sides, rather low, small rounded. The nose is like a cat's or a dog's, black. Meerkats have 36 teeth in their mouths, of which 3 incisors on the right and left, top and bottom, one canine each, 3 premolar incisors and two true molars. With them, the animal is able to butcher a dense cover of hard insects and meat.
The entire body of the animal is covered with hair, from the side of the back it is thicker and darker, from the side of the abdomen less often, shorter and lighter. The color varies from light red and even yellow shades to dark brown tones. All meerkats have black stripes on their coats. They are formed by black-colored tips of hairs located nearby. The muzzle and abdomen of the animal are most often light, and the ears are black. The tip of the tail is also painted black. Fur adds volume to a skinny animal. Without it, meerkats would look very thin and small.
Interesting fact: The meerkat does not have hard hair on its stomach. There, the animal has only a soft undercoat.
Where does the meerkat live?
Meerkats are found exclusively in southern Africa.
They can be found in such countries like:
- South Africa;
These animals are adapted to a dry, hot climate, able to endure dust storms. Therefore, they live in deserts and semi-deserts. For example, meerkats are found in large numbers in the Namib Desert and the Kalahari Desert.
Although they can be called hardy, meerkats are completely unprepared for cold snaps, and they can hardly endure low temperatures. This is worth remembering for those who like to have an exotic animal at home. In Russia, you should carefully monitor home temperature conditions and exclude drafts for the health of the animal.
Meerkats love dry, more or less loose soils so that they can dig a shelter in them. Usually it has several entrances and exits and allows the animal to hide from enemies in one entrance, and while the predator is tearing this place, the meerkat escapes through another exit. Also, animals can use other people's holes dug by other animals and abandoned. Or just hide in natural soil recesses.
If the terrain is dominated by rocky foundations, mountains, outcrops, then meerkats are happy to use caves and nooks for the same purpose as holes.
What does a meerkat eat?
Meerkats eat mostly insects. They are called — insectivores. Usually they do not go far from their shelter, but dig nearby in the ground, in the roots, turn over stones and thereby seek food for themselves. But they do not have exceptional dietary preferences, so they have a fairly varied diet.
Meerkats get their nutrients from:
- eggs of turtles and small birds;
One of the favorite activities of the animals — it is hunting for scorpions that live in large numbers in the desert area. Surprisingly, the poison of snakes and scorpions is practically not dangerous for the animal, since the meerkat is immune to these poisons. Although there are cases of increased reaction and very rare cases of death of animals stung by a snake or a scorpion. Meerkats are very agile. They quickly get rid of scorpion dal so that they can eat it safely later.
They teach their offspring such tricks, and while the cubs are not able to hunt themselves, the meerkats fully provide them with food and teach them to get their own food and hunt . They can also hunt and eat small rodents. Thanks to this feature, meerkats have gained popularity as pets.
Character and lifestyle features
Meerkats are considered to be great intellectuals. To communicate with each other, they can use more than twenty words, each of which has several syllables. Interestingly, to warn of danger in their language there are words that denote the distance to the predator in terms of “far” and “near”. They also tell each other where the danger comes from – on the ground or in the air.
An interesting fact: first, the beast signals to its relatives about how far the danger is, and only then – from where it is approaching. In addition, scientists have found that the cubs also learn the meaning of these words in this order.
The meerkat language also has words denoting that the exit from the shelter is free, or, conversely, that it is impossible to leave, since there is danger. Meerkats sleep at night. Their lifestyle is exclusively diurnal. In the morning, immediately after waking up, part of the flock stands guard, other individuals go hunting. The changing of the guard usually takes place after a few hours. In hot weather, the animals are forced to dig holes.
It is interesting that at the moment of digging, their ears seem to close so that earth and sand do not get into them.
Due to the fact that desert nights are cold, and meerkat fur often does not provide good thermal insulation, animals freeze, so in a flock they often sleep tightly pressed against each other. This helps keep them warm. In the morning the whole flock warms up in the sun. Also, after sunrise, animals usually clean their dwellings, throw out excess soil, and expand their burrows.
In the wild, meerkats rarely live longer than six or seven years. Usually, the average life expectancy is four to five years. Also, meerkats have many natural enemies, they often die, but the death of individuals is offset by high fecundity, so the meerkat population does not decrease. And so, the mortality of animals is high, it reaches 80% in cubs and 30% in adults. In captivity, they can live up to twelve years.
Social Structure and Reproduction
Meerkats are very social animals. They do everything in groups. They live in large, numerous flocks, about 40-50 individuals. One group of meerkats can occupy an area of about two square kilometers, live and hunt on it. Cases of migration of meerkats are not uncommon. They have to roam in search of new food.
At the head of the flock are a male and a female, and females are dominant, meerkats have matriarchy. It is the female at the head of the pack that has the right to breed. If another individual breeds, then it can be expelled and even torn to pieces. The cubs that are born can also be killed.
Meerkats are fertile. Females are able to bring new offspring three times a year. Pregnancy lasts only 70 days, lactation lasts for about seven weeks. In one litter there can be from two to five cubs. The offspring of a dominant pair is usually taken care of by the entire flock. Clan members bring food, bite vermin from puppies until they can do it on their own, and protect them in every possible way. It comes to the point that if a sufficiently large predator attacks the flock, and everyone does not have time to hide from it, then the adults cover the cubs with themselves, and thereby save the young at the cost of their own lives.
The upbringing of cubs is very well done in flocks, which greatly distinguishes meerkats from other animals, from which offspring learn not in the process of education, but in the process of observing the behavior of their parents. It is believed that the reason for this feature is the harsh desert conditions of their habitat.
Interesting fact: Tame meerkats, unlike wild — very bad parents. They are capable of abandoning their young. The reason is that animals pass on their knowledge to the new generation through learning, and meerkats play a greater role than instincts.
Natural enemies of meerkats
Their small size makes them potential prey for many predators. On the ground, jackals prey on meerkats. From the sky they are threatened by eagle owls and other birds of prey, especially eagles, which prey not only on small cubs, but even on adult meerkats. Sometimes quite large snakes can crawl into their holes. For example, the king cobra is able to eat not only still blind puppies, but also relatively large almost adult individuals — with whom she can handle.
In addition, meerkats have to fight not only with predators, but also with their relatives. In fact, they are their own natural enemies. It is believed that flocks of meerkats very quickly eat food available in the area and devastate their territories. And because of this, the clans are forced to constantly roam from one place to another.
This leads to inter-clan wars for territory and forage. The battles of the animals are very cruel, every fifth of the fighting meerkats dies in them. At the same time, females defend their burrows especially fiercely, since when a clan dies, enemies usually kill all the cubs without exception.
Meerkats enter into a fight only with representatives of their own species. From predators, they try to hide in shelter or flee. When a predator appears in its field of vision, the animal informs its relatives by voice so that the whole flock is aware and can hide.
Population and species status
Despite their high natural mortality, meerkats are a species with minimal risk of extinction. Today, they are practically not threatened by anything, and the population of the species is very stable. But at the same time, with the gradual development of agriculture in some countries of South Africa, the habitat of animals is decreasing, and their natural habitat is being disturbed.
Potentially, further human interference could worsen the situation. But so far, meerkats are a thriving species and are not included in any of the Red Books. No measures and actions are taken to protect and protect these animals.
The average population density of animals can reach 12 individuals per square kilometer. From the point of view of scientists, a density of 7.3 individuals per square kilometer is considered optimal. With this value, the meerkat population is most resistant to cataclysms and climate change.
Animals are very easily tamed, so they often become the subject of trade in many African countries. The removal of these animals from the wild has practically no effect on their population due to their high fertility. It is noteworthy that meerkats are not afraid of people. They are so accustomed to tourists that they even allow themselves to be stroked. They approach a person without any fear, and with great pleasure accept delicious “gifts” from tourists.