Classification and Range
The Meerkat belongs to the family Herpestidae or mongoose family. Meerkats are part of the group of mammals known as carnivores, which means they eat mostly meat. Meerkats dwell in the savannas and grasslands of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola.
Meerkats live in the Kalahari Desert, which is not a true desert as it supports many plants and animals. Temperatures reach over 100 degrees (F) in summer and drop down close to freezing in the winter. Meerkats will use their claws to dig large underground burrows, but spend much of the day outside foraging, babysitting, grooming each other, or playing, with a sentry keeping an eye out for danger.
Meerkats are the most social of all the mongooses, and family groups live together in a pack or colony, which can contain up to 30 individuals.
Meerkats have brown, yellowish, or gray fur, with brown stripes running up and down their backs. They have long snouts, black noses, black fur around their eyes and ears, and black tips on their long tails. Meerkats weigh less than 1.5 ounces at birth and just over 2 pounds as adults; they are usually 12 inches tall, with their tails about 8 inches long.
Meerkats have an average life expectancy of 12–14 years.
Meerkats become sexually mature at 1 year of age. Each meerkat family is made up of a breeding pair and their offspring. Only the dominant pair in a colony are usually allowed to mate. Meerkats will mate any time during the year. Females give live birth after ll weeks of gestation. A female can have one to five pups in a litter.
Young meerkats are called kits or pups. Pups are born inside the burrow hairless and blind, and do not come above ground until at least 21 days of age. They are fully grown at about 6 months old. Meerkats will take turns babysitting and even nursing the pups, and teach them how to catch food. Even with all of this care, it is estimated that only about 20% of pups survive to adulthood.
Meerkats must look out for predators like snakes and birds of prey. The sentry will make chirping calls to the colony, and all of the meerkats will run into the nearest burrow.
Meerkats often stay in the same matriarchal colony their whole lives, but male and female pairs may break off and form new families at anytime due to a fight or loss of dominant status, but it happens most often when a female meets a roving male.
Meerkat groups communicate using a wide range of body signals as well as numerous types of calls ranging from chirps, growls, trills and barks. They communicate in order to warn each other about predators or rival meerkat troops approaching the burrow. They will also vocalize during play.
Meerkats will let pups beg for food until a certain age, and then they stop responding to the pups’ demands. Research has found that after a certain age the sound of the pups’ begging chirps is no longer cute to the adult meerkats, it’s just annoying!
Woodland Park Zoo Is Helping—With Your Support!
Woodland Park Zoo supports the International Field Training Programs in Conservation: Partnerships for the World program based in Southern Africa. Each in situ project supported by the zoo aims to provide a broad, holistic approach to conservation, encompassing research, education, habitat and species preservation. This includes comprehensive, cooperative strategies to link the needs of animals with the people who share their ecosystems.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save animal species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Let your elected representatives know your views on protecting endangered species and wild habitats. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at 206.548.2500 to find out how you can support conservation efforts at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival, by calling the zoo's Education Center at 206.548.2424.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Meerkats, by Nigel Dennis, David Macdonald, New Holland, 1999.
“Meerkat pups go to eating school,” BBC News, 13 July 2006.
Meerkat Mail, by Emily Gravet, Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Meet the Meerkat, by Darrin Lunde, Patricia J. Wynne, Charlesbridge Pub Inc., 2007.
Kalahari Meerkat Project: http://www.kalahari-meerkats.com/
Joah R. Madden et al., “Why do meerkat pups stop begging?” Animal Behaviour, Jul2009, 78(1):85-89.
*Taxonomic classification varies between references. Classification information used in this fact sheet was taken from: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41624/0