The Meerkat, or Suricate, is one of the best known mongoose species, thanks to the lovable character Timon in Disney’s The Lion King and the long-running documentary Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet. Adults average about 50cm long and can weigh up to 960g.
Meerkats inhabit open, dry areas, usually with a hard substrate. They feed mainly on invertebrates, but will also consume small amphibians, reptiles (including venomous snakes, to which they appear to have a high degree of immunity), eggs, rodents and succulent plants, which provides their required intake of water.
Suricates are diurnal in habits, though confining most of their activity to the cooler hours of the day. They live in colonies with up to 40 members of both sexes and all ages, with the adult males aggressively defending the group’s territory. Within this home range there are several nesting burrows as well as hundreds of bolt-holes, into which they flee at the slightest sign of danger. Nesting burrows are often shared with springhares, yellow mongooses and ground squirrels. While the group is out foraging they take turns to act as sentry, climbing into trees and bushes up to 7m high for a better vantage point. Meerkats love to bask in the sun on cold mornings.
In small colonies only the dominant female will breed, but in larger groups there may be two or three females with babies. Females give birth at any time of year (though mostly in summer) to litters of 2-7 pups, and can raise up to 3 litters annually in favourable conditions. While out foraging, the mother will leave the babies in the care of a babysitter at the nesting burrow until they start foraging with the group at about a month old. All the group members help to look after young and sick or injured troopmates. Meerkats have a life expectancy of up to 12 years in the wild.
The IUCN considers the Meerkat of least concern. They occur from south-western Angola through Namibia and Botswana to South Africa, where they are found in all provinces except Limpopo and Kwazulu-Natal.