savannahs and semi-deserts in southern Africa
Lifestyle and Behaviour
This very social species of mongoose is active by day and lives in family groups which are headed up by an alpha female. Meerkats hunt in the daytime but also enjoy sunbathing outside their dens. They eat insects and spiders as well as small vertebrates, reptiles and dead birds. They live in burrows which they dig with their shovelled feet (comprising 4 toes) to a depth of up to three metres. Meerkats are very envious of the food that others have caught and there are often brawls over food.
Breeding and Rearing Young
Meerkats become sexually mature at around twelve months old. Females give birth to between two and five pups after a gestation period of about 80 days. They open their eyes for the first time at around 14 days old. They drink their mother’s milk for about 80 days but this is supplemented with solid foods that have been pre-chewed for them at around six weeks old. At three months old they are independent but stay with the family group.
Clever Division of Labour
You have to be alert to keep watch successfully; members of the meerkat colony take turns to stand guard for as long as they are able to before a new sentry is selected. When a predator approaches (eagle, jackal, snake) the sentry warns the colony by whistling shrilly - a very effective protective mechanism.