Standing tall, the small animal scans the sky for predators, his neck extended and head swiveling side to side, ever diligent in the search for anything that may prove a threat to his group of fellow meerkats. At his fullest height, he barely reaches 12”, the average of an adult male in his species. What is this strange animal, looking similar to a mongoose or an elongated squirrel and sporting black “bandit” markings around its eyes that are vaguely reminiscent of a raccoon? What does anyone know of this incongruous, oft-overlooked creature, whose comparable significance to more exotic animals is virtually unknown? If you have watched the television channel Animal Planet, you may have caught the series Meerkat Manor, a documentary that provides a glimpse into a meerkat’s world in an entertaining and personable fashion, the voice-over narrating the mannerisms of members of the meerkat’s group and affixing names to each.
Figure 1. Meerkat Family
The meerkat is a small, agile mammal that is indigenous to the southern regions and Kalahari Desert of Africa, and is directly related to the mongoose family. Its scientific name is Suricata Suricatta, and is classified as a carnivorous mammal (Lester, 2006, Meerkat Info, para. 1). The name “meerkat” originates from the Afrikaans dialect and translates to “marsh cat” in the English form, although it is neither a cat nor does it live near marshes.
The physical attributes observed are that they grow to approximately 12” in height when attaining adulthood, while standing 6” at the shoulder, weigh approximately two to three pounds, and have a tail that grows up to 8” in length and is used in a method similar to a tripod, providing balance while standing or running. Bodily proportions are not related to being male or female, although colorations and markings afford the ability to determine a meerkat’s sex, ranging from brown to orange with grayish heads and a black band of fur surrounding their eyes, which acts as a natural sun shield against the desert’s harsh glare.
Their hair is coarse and hollow, layered on its body to afford insulation against the desert’s harsh, hot summers, and protect them from cooler weather in the winter. Their fur color is not camouflage, and exhibits a sharp contrast to the lighter shades of the sand in its habitat, making them highly visible to natural predators in the air and on the ground. As a result, several meerkats will stand sentry and act as security while the other members of the gang, the given name of multiple meerkats in a group, forage for food.
The skin pigmentation on their bellies is unique, as they have a dark brown or black tinge that provides for quick absorption of sunlight and generating warmth for the meerkat as they have low tolerances for cooler temperatures (Bennett-Wallberg, 2007, Meerkat Vital Statistics, para. 2). The meerkat’s vision is very good, with eyes that have a membrane that offers protection against blowing dust and sand. As well as a meerkat sees, it has difficulty with depth perception, and cannot focus on objects within twenty feet. As a result of this nearsightedness, they will often move their heads from side to side to obtain corrected perception. Vision is supplemented with a keen sense of smell that gives them the ability to forage and find food buried under several inches of sand.
The meerkat uses its front claws which are curved and sharp, as an excellent benefit when digging for insects. A meerkat must dig an equivalent amount of sand equal to their body weight just to get one insect. The diet of a meerkat would appear to be less than desirable to most of us, as it consists of crickets, ant larvae (a favorite), worms, grasshoppers, eggs, snakes, small rodents, and scorpions. Even though the scorpion has a stinger with which to...