A meerkatSiricata suricatta is a small mammal found in the mongoose family. The other name they are somtimes refered to is Suricates. Meerkats inhabit all parts in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and South Africa. Meerkats got their name from a name meaning 'loaword' from Afrikaans language. The name has a Dutch origin but by misidentification. In Dutch 'meerkat' means 'guenon'. Meerkats are small animals and therefore like all small species, they have a high rate of predation. This is why they have adapted so well in the desert areas through team work. A meerkat's life depends almost 80% on team work which is why meerkats are animals with the most sofisticated social structure of all animals and the basic building block of the social structure is the family group. Meerkats live in groups inorder to not only share sentry duty but also offer each other support and well being, which is what makes them so unque, very few species have the same cohesive society as meerkats.
A meerkat is a small diurnal herpestid(mongoose). Males weigh 731 grams(1.61 pounds) while females weigh 720 grams(1.58 pounds). It has a long slender body and limbs give it a body length of 25 to 35 cm(10 to 14 inches) and with a tail length of 17 to 25 cm(7 to 10 inches). It has a tail which is not bushy like other mongoose species but is rather long and thin and tappers to a black tiped coloured tail. Meerkats use their tales for balance when standing upright. Its face tapers,coming to a point at the nose,which is brown. Their eyes always have black patches around them which helps to deflect the glare of the sun. Meerkats have small black crescent-shaped ears that can close when digging to keep sand out. Meerkats have binocular vision,a large peripheral range,depth percipitation and eyes on the front of their faces. At the end of each of a meerkat's fingers is a nonretractable strong claw used for digging burrows for prey. Claws are also used at the macular hindlegs to help climd the occasional tree. They have four toes on each foot and long slender limbs. The coat is usually fawn coloured They have short parallel stripes across their backs,extending from the base of the tail to the shoulders. The patterns of stripes are unique to each individual. The unserside of the body has no markings but the belly has a patch which is only sparsely with hair and shows black skin underneath. Meerkats use this area to absorb the sun's heat while standing on their rear legs, usually early in the morning after cold desert nights.
Diet and Foraging behaviourEditMeerkats are primarily insectivores preying on a variety of insects. They will also prey on lizards,scorpions,snakes,spiders,plants,eggs,small mammals,millepedes,centipedes,burrowing skinks and more rarely small birds. They are partially immune to certain venoms such as the very strong venom of scorpions of the Kalahari Desert,unlike humans. They have no excess body fat stores so foraging for food is a daily activity. Meerkats forage in a group with one sentry on duty keeping watch for predators while the rest of the group search for food. Senthry duty is usually approximately an hour long. Pups do not start to independently forage for their own food until the age of 1 month old and do so by following an older member of the group who acts as the pup's tutor. The individual standing on guard gives a peeping sound called the 'watchman's song' that reasures others that there is someone on sentry duty.
PredatorsEditMeerkats have many predators and this is why they live in groups inorder to provide an early warning system. Some of their natural predators include:
(1).Martail Eagles( which is their number one enemy)
Meerkats are co-operatively breeding animals, subordinate individuals help to raise pups which are not their own. They live in groups of 5-50 consisting of a dominant pair and their offspring which remain in their natal group until adulthood and help the dominant pair to rear more pups. The dominant meerkat pair are usually the only animals to successfully breed and the likelihood that their pups' survival will strongly on rainfall as this affects food availability and the number of helpers to care for the pups.
Meerkat GroupEditMeerkats have a life which is 80% based on team work. Their small size makes them highly predatable so by living in groups they not only provide each other with an early warning system but also other life structures also depend on group living. Meerkats live in groups which can varry depending on food availability and high resources within a territory range. Groups can number from 5 to as many as 50 members. Group living provides the group with early warning systems by providing sentry duty taken by individuals, normally males who are in their first or second year of life but also females, infact, almost all members except the dominant female takes a share of sentry duty. Living in a group also helps with co-operative breeding by providing the dominant pair with helpers and theirfore increasing the survival of their pups. As the pups grow up they need to learn how to forage forthemselves and group living provides the pups with suitable tutors who not only guard them but also teach them how to hunt for prey items from a month old. The size of a group affects the size of the territory range. There are more than one meerkat groups bordering each other and somtimes ranges can overlap. Meerkats do commonly have violent clashes with neighbouring meerkat groups and the size of a group affects the group's defence of their territory and chances of driving away the rival groups. Large groups have a higher success rate in holding on to large territories and driving off intruders than small groups. Within a group there is a social structure. The dominant meerkats(two) assert their position by chin swiping and hip slamming and somtimes launch vicious attacks on subordinates, this prevents insubordination among the ranks. Once female subordinates reach over 3 years old they are commonly evicted by the dominant female who not only ensures her position ut also the survival of her pups. Males leave groups volunteerily after 1 year old and go on what we call 'roving expeditions' to other groups insearch of mating opportunities. Subordinate males are commonly chased out of the group by the dominant male who has a sole purpose of holding on to his position.
Splinter groups and subgroupsEdit
When a group gets to large then they turn to commonly split. Instances of group splits occur during foraging when some animals move further away from the main group insearch of food and only realise that they have splintered away from the main family group latrer on. Normally the splinter groups can reunite with the main group at the sleeping burrow or at further foraging excertions. Somtimes the splinter groups see each other and begin to war dance thinking to be a rival meerkat group and without too much blood shed they sniff each other and recognise the common smell among themselves and reunite into one family group again. Somtimes the two(or maybe three) splinter groups do not reunite after a long period of separation and son take their own paths. They splinter group establishes itself as a new group with a new dominant pair and territory range.
Foundation of new groupsEdit
Foundation of new groups are usually resulted with female meerkats though somtimes males found groups though they rarely do so because roving males can join other groups which were founded by females. Some groups are started after members of natal groups leave their group. Most instances of new group foundation occur when subordinate females are evicted. Female meerkats stay within their natal groups and do not leave volunteerily so the only reason they disperse is through eviction. Dominant female meerkats evict subordinates(usually daughters,sisters or somtimes distant relatives) from the group. If the evicted females do not rejoin their family they disperse. After somtime in exile they usually meet roving males from other groups or wild and found a new group.
The Dominant PairEditWithin a group there is a dominant pair consiting of the dominant female and dominant male. They are the breeding pair of the group. The dominant female is the leader of the group and dominant to the dominant male. The dominant female is noticablly the largest female in the group who monopolises breeding within the group. The dominant male is the resident breeding male who controls aspects of the group such as territory defence and breeding with the dominant female. He is dominated by the dominant female since meerkats do live in a matriarchal society where the dominant female has absolute control of the group. The dominant male is noticablly the largest male in the group who somtimes makes large contributions to sentry duty and keeping roving males away and out of the group. The dominant pair meerkats assert dominance but chin swipping, anal marking, hip slammming and attacks on subordinates. This prevents insubordination among the subordinate meerkats in the group. The dominant pair are the only individuals to successfully breed and so the majority of pups in the group belong to the dominant pair meerkats and also majority of subordinates in the group are the osffpring of the dominant pair but somtimes can be subordinate sisters,brothers or distant relatives. Both genders will drive out subordinates of the same gender to hold on to their position and ensure the survival of their pups. Dominant females evict subordinate females and dominant males chase out subordinate males. Subordinate females will soon challenge the dominant female and if she wins will take over dominant female position. Subordinate males will somtimes overthrow the dominant male(commonly their father) and take over dominance but this is unlikely among male meerkats since the new dominant male would not be able to breed since he is related to the females in his group and therefore male meerkats leave their natal group to go roving. The dominant female and male can normally hold on to their regn about the same time though somtimes the dominant female holds on to her position longer.
The Dominant femaleEditWithin a group there is a dominnat pair and the real ruler of the group is the Dominant female . Dominant females are female meerkats who have a dominant status and superior position in the group above all the subordinate individuals. She is normally the leader of the group and makes the decisions regardin the movement of the group and which foraging routes they take each day. She is the only female meerkat in the group to breed and she reinforces this rule in the most vigorous way than most other animal societies. The dominant female attacks the subordinate females and this not only helps her assert her position but also this helps to control the brreeding success of the subordinate females in the group. It is a fact that meerkats live in a matriarchal society where the dominant female has full power over all members of the group. She is dominant to the dominant male in the group and this is because for a male to gain dominance status he needs the acceptance of the groups Queen, the dominant female. Is most cases the dominant female(matriarch) is mother to most subordinate individuals born in the group. Since she is the only female to successfully breed she can rely on the subordinate females to help rear her pups and therefore most successfull litters of pups that survive belong to the dominant female. Subordinates cease to breed and rear the pups of the dominant female. The dominant female can usually hold on to her position for as many as 10 years, normally longer than how the dominant male can hold.
Rise to powerEdit
Dominant individuals always start from first being subordinates. Subordinate females stay within their natal group foir the rest of their lives unless evicted. Normally once subordinates get to big, strong, older and more experienced they are evicted from the group to prevent them from challenging the dominant female. If not evicted they will remain in their natal group until death. Once subordinate female meerkats reach 1 year old they are able to breed and success in breeding among meerkats is closely associated with dominant position. This is because subordinates have very few chances of breeding and rearing their pups to survival unless their have the breeding role and that role can only be owned by the dominant female. If subordinates become older they begin to challange dominance and assert dominance on other subordinate females in the group. As their status improves they end up challenging the dominant female(mother or sister or distant relative) and if they success in dominating the dominant female they acquire the top position and take ver as dominant female. The former dominant female's deposal also somtimes affects her relationship with the other subordinate females and they dominate her. The new dominant female will evict her former ruler from the group. The deposed dominant will only acquire back her status if she either joins another group(very unlikely) or starts a new group. Commonly she is not let back into her former group ruled by the new dominant female.
Death of a former dominant femaleEdit
When a dominant female dies her older daughters will fight for her position. The oldest subordinate female normally wins dominance but it can also be the largest of the females who takes over dominance. Each subordinate female meerkat wants to start breeding as soon as possible and by acquiring the dominant position they incease their chances of successfully breeding and rearing their pups to survival. Eventually one of subordinate females(daughter or sister or distant relative) takes over dominance and becomes the new dominant female. The dominant male commonly leaves after this turn of events because the new queen is commonly his daughter. The new dominant female will somtimes evict her former competition and restore the balance of power and hold on to her position as dominant female and will most likely have a new breeding dominant male at her side.
The Dominant maleEditThe Dominant male is a male meerkat who has dominant position and is superior to all the subordinate males in the group. He is the breeding partner of the dominant female and she has highrer control than him. The dominant male is noticably the largest sized male in the group who monopolises breeding by remaining loyal to the dominant female. He is the only male in the group to breed. He takes contribution in the group defence from other groups and sntry duty. The dominant male and his partner do little in feeding the pups while foraging and leaves the task to the subordinate meerkats, most commonly his daugters and sons, though somtimes can be his brothers. If the dominant female dies then the resident dominant male will commonly leave the group, rarely will he choose to remain in the group when he knows that he cannot breed with the females in the group.
Rise to powerEdit
When a group of roving males from other groups join the group, the dominant male is at risk of loosing his position and breeding privillage. Roving males normally cannot join a group if there is a large number of adult resident males but this rule can change when there is a high prospect of resident breeding females. If rovers do manage to join a group they will most certainly oust the dominant male and chase him and some subordinate males out of the group. After the former dominant male is driven out or left the group the new males fight for his position. For male meerkats its all about strength rather than age and the most powerful and dominaneering male wins the position of dominant male.
Death of a former dominant maleEdit
When a dominant male dies his sons or any subordinate male in the group will take over. Though males commonly leave their natal group to prevent inbreeding they will somtimes choose to stay, most especially the male who aquires the dominant position. The new dominant male is commonly the son of the dominant female and the dominant female will mate with roving male meerkats rather than the resident dominant male in her group who is her close relative.
ReproductionEditMeerkats become sexually mature at about 1 year old and can have litters of 1 to 7 pups. Wild meerkats may have up to four litters a year. Meerkats are iteroparous and can reproduce anytime throughout the year though most births occur during the rainy season when food is most abundant. Pups are allowed to leave the burrow at three weeks old. When pups are ready to emerge from the burrow the whole group will stand around at the burrow to watch, encourage and reasure them. Some of adolescents may try to show off so that they get more attention than the pups. There is no precopulatory display, the male meerkat ritually grooms the female until she submits to him and copulation begins with the male adopting a seated position during the act. Gestation last approximately 70 days and the pups are born underground in the burrow and are altricial. The pups ears open at 15 days of age and their eyes open 10 to 14 days old. They are weaned at around 49 to 63 days. They do not come above ground until 3 weeks old the most and remain with their babysitters at the safety and security of the babysitting burrow. After another week or so they go of foraging with the adults in the foraging party. Usually the dominant pair reserve the right to mate and the dominant female will kill any pups born to subordinates in the group, therefore ensuring that her own pups survive. They will also evict or kick out the subordinate mother of the offending pups. New groups are founded by evicted females teaming up with roving males. If members belong to the dominant pair group are relatives(commonly as a result when the dominant female dies and is succeeded by her daughter), they do not mate with each other and breeding is by females mating with roving males from other groups. In this situation pregnant subordinate females will also kill any pups born in the group(including the dominant female's pups) to ensure the survival of her own pups.
PupsEditPups are young meerkats born in litters from 1-7. Litters of pups are babysat by helpers at the burrow until they first emerge from their underground burrow around three weeks old. Very occasionally,subordinate females also breed and pups from as many as five different females are reared together in mixed litters containing up to 13 pups. Puups begin traveling with the group at four weeks of age and are fed with invertebrates and small vertebrates by helpers for their first three months of life. As they grow pups need to learn how to deal with difficult prey items including potentially dangerous scorpions. Adults actively teach the pups how to deal and handle diffucult prey by gradually introducing them to live prey. Unlike related bandit mongooses,meerkat pups do not form bonds with purticular helpers. Helpers do not feed and babysit related pups more often than unrelated pups, but decisions to help seem to be based on the age of the helper,gender and how much it can afford to feed at that time(measured by how successful it has been in finding food recently).
Young meerkats start to playfught from as early as two weeks old. Like all young animals, young meerkats need to playfight inorder to strengthen muscles,practice fighting moves which will be usefull in later period of life and also build strong bonds with each other. By playfighting young meerkats learn how to relate with one another and their surroundings. Since meerkats live in groups, the whole extended family commonly joins in the juvenile's rough and tumble and these itself helps the group hold on to their strong family bond. As the young meerkats mature their rough games will become less and they will focus their attention of their time in contributing to the welfare of the group such as sentry duty, pup helpeing or foraging for food. Adult meerkats also playfight and this shows what a cohesive unit meerkats live in.
GroomingEditMeerkats groom themselves inorder to keep parasites at bay and build relationships. They can self-groom themselves and groom each other in a group grooming setion where everymember takes part. This keeps their coats in tip=top condition as well as making friends and building bonds which strengthens the group's unity.
Meerkats have strong claws which grow long, the purpose of these clwas is to dig through the soil for prey items or for building burrows. Pups start to immitate a digging behaviour by watching an adult clean the burrow or forage for food.
Territory defenceEditMeerkat groups defend territories from other groups of their own kind. Intruders can either be neighbouring groups,newly formed groups looking for a territory or small groups(bands) of males that temporarily leave their natal group to try and mate with females from other groups. Territory size is about 1-3 km2(though territory range can depend of the size of a group) and meerkats defend their territory by maintaining latrine sites, impressive visual threat displays such as war dancing and if all else fails, fighting which leads to vicious group encounters in which some meerkats are killed during the fight or succumb to their injuries and fight wounds.
Maturity and DespersalEditMeerkats reach adulthood at the age of one. Males voluntarily disperse alone or in a band with other males from their own group at 18 to 30 months of age, either emmigrating into an existing group by ousting the dominant male and subordinate adult males or founding a new group with unrelated females. Female meerkats never permanently immigrate into existing groups nor voluntarily leave their natal group but are evicted from their own group by the dominant female in the later stages of pregnancy. Older pregnant females are mostly likely to be the first evicted and this is thought to be a tactic which the dominant female uses to increase the chances of her own pups surving because pregnant females eat the pups born to other mothers. Although most evicted females return to their own group after the dominant female has given birth to her litter, some may permanently disperse by founding new groups with unrelated males. Ingeneral female dispersal is forced but is voluntarily taken by males.
Meerkats constantly communicate with one another in 3 different ways: scent,sound and body langauge. They have over 20 different sounds that have been recorded with diferent meanings. These calls can be broken down into six different groups:
(1). Lost call(commonly used by pups who are left behind during a group march)
(2).Alarm calls(commonly used by senitel meerkats warning others of an approaching predator)
(3).Lead the group calls(commonly used by the Dominant female meerkat in the movement of the group)
(4).Pup feeding calls(commonly used by pups beging to be fed)
(5).Guard calls 'Watchman's song' (commonly used by senitel meerkats to asure the the group that there is somone on guard looking out for predators)
(6).Foraging calls(commonly used by a foraging group of meerkats)
While looking for food they are constantly communicating in what sounds like growls. It hepls them to keep track of one another's location since they forage up to 15 feet(5 meters) apart. When pups learn how to forage they make loud calls which can he heard up to hundred yards away. If they become separated from the adults the volume of their cries increases so that an adult will come to get them. They have numerous sounds that are used during grooming and playing.
Meerkat study project: Kalahari Meerkat Project