Meerkats On Duty


Tiny meerkats, balancing on their hind legs, stretch their necks and point their noses skyward. No enemy is spotted from above. But wait! Another colony of meerkats is scampering toward them. Hisses, barks, and shrieks fill the stifling desert air. Meerkats jump up and down, fiercely defending their territory from the encroaching colony of meerkats.

The meerkat, which weighs two pounds and is one foot long, is not a cat at all. It is a member of the mongoose family.

Another name for meerkats is suricates. These vital, clever, and amazing weasel-like animals live in Africa between Angola and the Kalahari Desert.

Meerkats are carnivorous mammals. Although they eat mostly insects, they also enjoy munching mice, birds, lizards, and snakes.

Meerkats will also fight and kill huge scorpions and eat them. Somehow the meerkats seem to be immune to the venom from the scorpion's sting. Scientists aren't sure why this is true.

With head down and tail up, the meerkat quickly and vigorously digs for insects, sending large amounts of sand shooting high in the air. Sometimes the little creature becomes so engrossed in digging that it completely disappears into the hole. A meerkat will move up to two times its weight in sand just to nab a single bug.

Meerkats are about the size of a ground squirrel. Their big, soulful eyes are ringed in black to protect their eyes from the sun. They have fluffy tan fur with lighter fur around their stomach, which they love to warm in the hot desert sun. It's a comical sight to see several meerkats spread-eagled, enjoying the sun's rays.

Meerkats sometimes gather together bristling their fur, jumping into the air, hissing, and growling when danger is near. These fearless little creatures have been seen driving off jackals, small birds of prey, and cobras.

Every meerkat colony has a sentry. While the colony members are busy with their daily chores, the sentry stands on a high mound of dirt scanning the sky. Even during the scorching heat of the day, which can climb to 140°F, or in desert sandstorms, the sentry stands stoically. The meerkat may be hungry and thirsty, but still it watches faithfully. Sometimes the tiny lookout will peer at the sky from high atop a swaying branch. Every two hours another meerkat will slip in unobtrusively and take the sentry's place as the lookout.

Meerkats stick together in their colonies. They work together, play together, protect each other, and help rear each other's babies.

Vic Cowan, an educator at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, California, says, "These tiny animals are alert, intelligent, dependable, and affectionate. As we work with meerkats, we find that their personalities differ greatly."

During daylight hours meerkats zip about looking for food. Every so often they stop their search, sit up on their haunches, and peer at the sky, checking for predators. But when evening shadows creep across the African desert or when darkness comes to their home in the zoo, the meerkats disappear into their well-constructed burrows to snooze the night away. 

Jane Porter Meier