Scientific name: Suricata suricatta
Family name: Herpestidae
IUCN status: Least concern
Lifespan (in wild): 12-14 years
Weight: Less than one kilogram
Body length: Around 29cm (plus a 19cm tail)
Top speed: 32 km/h
Diet: Omnivore: beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and scorpions. They'll also eat small reptiles, birds, eggs, fruit and plants.
There are few animals on Earth who work as well together as meerkats. These squirrel-size members of the mongoose family live in groups of different sizes, from as little as three to as big as 50 members. everyone in the mob participates in gathering food, keeping a look out for predators and taking care of the babies.
Meerkats live in the deserts and grasslands of the southern tip of Africa. They are super cute, with bushy, brown-striped fur, a small, pointed face and large eyes surrounded by dark patches. They average about 50 centimetres long, including their tail. These extremely social animals live together in burrows, which they dig with their long, sharp claws. Living underground keeps mob members safe from predators and out of the harsh African heat. These burrows can be 5 metres long and contain multiple entrances, tunnels, and rooms. A group will use up to five separate burrows at a time.
Meerkats only go outside during the daytime. Each morning, as the sun comes up, the mob emerges and begins looking for food. They use their keen sense of smell to locate their favourite foods, which include beetles, caterpillars, spiders and scorpions. They'll also eat small reptiles, birds, eggs, fruit and plants. Back at the burrow, several babysitters stay behind to watch over newborn pups. This duty rotates to different members of the mob, and a sitter will often go all day without food. The babysitters' main job is to protect pups from meerkats in rival mobs who, if given the chance, will kill the babies. Eeek!
While the rest of the mob forages for food, one of the meerkats (or sometimes more), called a sentry, will find a high point, like a termite mound, and perch on its back legs. From here it scans the sky and desert for predators such as eagles, hawks and jackals. A sentry who senses danger will let out a high-pitched squeal, sending the mob scrambling for cover.
Meerkats dig safe places called bolt holes throughout their foraging area, where they can hide in an emergency. But if caught in the open by a predator, a meerkat will try to look fierce, lying on its back and showing its teeth and claws. If a group is confronted, the meerkats will stand together, arching their backs, raising their hair and hissing. This sometimes fools an attacker into thinking they are a single large, vicious animal.
Meerkats are abundant throughout their range and are not considered threatened or endangered. But they live a very difficult life in the African desert, constantly threatened by hungry predators, rival meerkats, drought and burrow-flooding rainstorms.