Field guide to meerkats
Thanks to wildlife documentaries and a ubiquitous series of TV ads, the meerkat has become something of a media star. Behind the cute portrayals, however, is an elusive creature at risk from the pet trade and habitat loss, writes Grant M. Mc Ilrath.
This sociable suricate lives in groups of six to around 40 related and unrelated members. Thanks to their distinctive behaviour, including the co-operation displayed in raising young to their now famous straight-backed, anti-predator vigilance, they are frequently seen – and adored – in the media.
Despite this, they actually prove very challenging to view in the wild at close proximity. Both predator and prey, the meerkat is a highly secretive mammal that is swift to take cover beneath the ground in a burrow when disturbed. Unlike other surface-dwelling animals, it can take many years to earn the selective trust and tolerance of the meerkat without it simply going below ground. As a result, your best chances of a sighting are when they are basking their bellies in the sun or when on sentry duty, high above the ground in a tree.
The meerkat is closely related to the mongoose and genet species and many first-time observers comment on how small they are; television portrayals having led people to believe they are far larger. In fact, the meerkat is around the length of a house cat and an adult usually weighs less than a kilo, at around 850 grams.
There are currently three recognised subspecies of suricate or meerkat: Suricata suricatta suricatta (the best known by far, and the one you will have seen on television or in captivity); Suricata suricatta iona; and Suricata suricatta marjoria. The overall appearance of the three sub-species varies from very light yellow and white in the northernmost populations through to bright yellowy-brown to very dark brownish-grey in the southernmost populations. Each sub-species is camouflaged for the ecosystem they live in and so alters along with habitat.
Where do meerkats live?
Meerkats mainly live in southern Africa. There are records of them in southern Angola, through Namibia and Botswana, and South Africa. Semi-desert ecosystems with an annual rainfall of less than 600mm are their preference. Distribution is largely determined by suitable habitat, which tends to be isolated in an attempt to avoid disturbance caused by humans building and farming. There are often found in old riverbed systems that seldom have any water flowing through them.
Due to the species’ habit of burrowing and their secretive natures, most records are drawn from brief sightings. Distribution maps should therefore be regarded as rough indications only (for example, I have personally documented wild meerkats living in the Little Karoo Valley in South Africa’s Western Cape but this area does not yet appear on most distribution maps). As a result, nobody can accurately gauge the wild meerkat’s population size. What is certainly the case, however, is that their natural habitat is shrinking.
A meerkat is 450-550mm long, with its tail making up 200-240mm of that. Weight ranges between 620-960gm.
The vigilant stance they are known for is effective thanks to eyes that boast a range of over 180 degrees. The eyes are positioned forward and slightly to the sides of their heads, which means they enjoy the binocular-type vision of predators and the watchful, all-round sight of a prey species. The eyes also have built-in ‘sunglasses’ and ‘windscreen wipers’ – the former able to absorb reflective light, and the second a nictitating membrane that keeps eyes free of dust.
The nose is very elongated and sensitive, enabling the meerkat to smell food a metre beneath the ground. The nose’s tip is flexible and able to bend as it is jammed into the ground. Long whiskers around the nose can be used to navigate beneath the ground by touch.
The meerkat has primarily crushing and puncturing rather than cutting teeth. The tongue has small spikes that help to grip food and the upper area of the mouth is covered in bony ridges that help to crush the hard shells of their food.
A little known fact is that meerkats’ thick and fleshy ears have a valve that can swell up, which closes them and prevents sand from entering the ear canal.
Shoulders are narrow compared to broad hips that – along with the strong tail – help the meerkat to balance, standing in tripod fashion with the front legs raised.
Meerkats’ hair is generally very short so that sand can be shaken off. Hair is particularly sparse on the stomach, where the darker skin shows through and acts like a solar panel. On colder, overcast days the meerkat will huddle over its belly to prevent heat loss; likewise it will stretch out in the sand to reduce heat when it’s sunny.
The transverse freckle-like patterns on a meerkat’s back are unique and present from birth, allowing identification of individuals. In the wild this acts as camouflage, breaking up the meerkat’s shape and making it difficult to see from above –helping to protect it from aerial attack.
What do meerkats eat?
The meerkat uses their sharp front nails to dig out most of their food from beneath the ground. Invertebrates and small vertebrates are mainly eaten because meerkat teeth are not suited to cutting. Favoured foods include beetle grubs, scorpions (meerkats have a very high tolerance to the venom of the scorpion, millipedes and centipedes, toads and small lizards. Although the meerkat will drink water opportunistically, it receives the water it needs from its food. Captive meerkats are frequently fed the wrong diet and are therefore unhealthy.
The meerkat is mainly active after sunrise and the early evening. However, periods of activity depend on factors such as food availability, temperature and breeding. One of their best known behaviours is sunning or basking: standing up on their hind legs – often using their tail for support – in order to warm up in the sunlight.
All the meerkats of a group will stand up and look around for danger at intervals, sometimes climbing into vegetation or trees and staying on guard for up to a few hours.
Meerkats frequently dig at their burrows to clear them of parasites and obstructions but also as a way to warm up. The burrows are a few meters deep and have numerous chambers.
Meerkat groups usually have a dominant male and a dominant female who are unrelated and produce the majority of young within the group. The hierarchy is matriarchal and is largely determined by age and experience rather than size and weight.
From the age of nine to 24 months, males begin to form temporary bachelor groups which explore the boundaries of the territory in search of breeding opportunities in other groups. Female meerkats seldom leave their group voluntarily but are frequently chased out by the dominant female. These females often meet up with other wandering coalitions and may get pregnant but usually abort their young. Once the dominant female gives birth the evicted females will try and return to the group, often suckling the dominant female’s young.
Meerkats scent mark their territories using faeces, urine and a secretion from their anal glands. Most group members will scent mark but the dominant pair do it most. Meerkats may take a few weeks to travel around their territories scent marking them. They seldom spend more than a few nights in the same area due to parasite loads, food availability and predator scent detection unless they have young. During this time they will use the same breeding burrow for around three weeks.
Meerkats are both highly vocal and highly social. They often stand together, piloerect their hair (like humans’ goosebumps), bend their tails over their backs, and jump, growl and advance on possible danger in an agonistic display sometimes called a war dance. They also do this on encountering a rival meerkat group.
Breeding patterns are largely influenced by rainfall which in turn determines food availability. They can breed throughout the year but this varies from area to area. In the Kalahari, with a summer rainfall pattern, the meerkats usually breed then. In the Western Cape breeding is more likely to occur in the colder months.
Anything from one to four litters have been recorded in a single female over a year. The matriarch tends to breed but multiple females can do too. This is highly variable and based on many factors. Often the dominant female will aggressively evict subordinate females of breeding age (sexual maturity is around six to nine months, though most females breed from the age of two upwards). By evicting the lower ranking females from the group, the dominant female has the highest chance of getting pregnant first, meaning her young are born first and have the best chance of survival.
The dominant female and dominant male usually pair beneath the ground for a few minutes. The gestation period is around 11 weeks and the young are born with their eyes and ears closed. After about a week, these open and the young will venture from the burrow. If it’s not warm enough, however, they remain below the ground for weeks.
Meerkats are well-known for being co-operative. Even unrelated animals in the group will look after the young, often going without food themselves. These ‘babysitters’ defend the young from possible intruders while the rest of the group forages for food. In the wild, meerkats live for around 4-8 years, while this increases to as much as 12 years in captivity due to a lack of predators. Raising the dominant female’s young collectively as a group gives future generations the best chance of survival.
What are the Threats to Meerkats
Unfortunately, meerkat habitat is under increasing pressure. Their burrows are ploughed to plant crops or for construction purposes, and insecticides kill off their food or even them when they eat the insects. Intensive stock farming causes soil compaction through trampling and the removal of all plant growth from an area. The food that depends on these plants, such as coleoptra larvae and caterpillars, are staples of the meerkat diet.
Although banned in some areas, the trading of meerkats as pets is allowed in others – placing great strain on wild meerkat populations. If their habitat is not urgently protected the meerkat will go extinct in the wild and will only be seen in zoos. Meerkats do not adapt well to solitary confinement or small enclosures and are best viewed and actively conserved in the wild; free in their natural habitat.
Numerous non-professional researchers and unqualified nature conservationists tame, feed or handle meerkats (some of them released pets) and then claim they are wild. Beware of tourism traps like this, which won’t be run by professional conservationists or published researchers. The experience will be closer to what you would find in a zoo. Check their credentials so you have an informed idea of the experience being offered.
The Meerkat Magic Conservation Project is run by nature conservationist and internationally published research biologist Grant M. McIlrath, known as ‘the Meerkat Man’. He has been researching wild meerkats since 1993. After seven years in the Kalahari studying one meerkat subspecies, he discovered a second subspecies in the Klein Karoo near Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape of South Africa. McIlrath now owns and runs the Meerkat Magic Valley Reserve, which allows a limited number of wild meerkat visits each year, staying at the research base on site.http://www.meerkatmagic.com/
Where to see meerkats in the wild
Many ‘guaranteed’ sightings of meerkats in the wild take place with habituated meerkats; that is, animals that still live independently but have got so used to being around people that they will allow them to approach closely and even climb up on them. A cursory internet search reveals a good number of reserves and farms that offer these kinds of experiences. Bear in mind that many films showing people touching tame (rather than wild) meerkats has directly resulted in an increase in the pet trade of this species.
To see a truly wild meerkat requires a lot more time and patience. Many people will look directly at a meerkat in the wild and not even see it because it is so well camouflaged. Setting aside at least a week in one of the below national parks is recommended to have a reasonable chance of seeing an animal that visits each of its regular burrows perhaps no more than once a month. As a mammal that is almost constantly on the move – with daily distances covered of around 1.4km and a general range of four to 11 kilometres, with dozens of sleeping areas – finding them is always going to be tricky. Their appeal to pet traders also complicates the issue – making meerkat experts and conservationists reluctant to describe exactly where burrows are located.
The golden rule for seeing meerkats in all the national parks mentioned below is to remember that they don’t like rain. So while viewing is possible throughout the year, rainy days make things more difficult. Viewing chances are best just around sunrise when meerkats tend to stand around their burrows before leaving for the day. Another good time is just before sunset, before they go to sleep. This applies throughout the year so sunrise and sunset times should be researched.
Another useful tip is to ask at the reception area of each park about the most recent meerkat sightings. The rangers who are out on patrol always take notes of all animal sightings, including resident meerkat populations, with times and precise locations. It’s vital to get up to date information as the specifics of each place will change frequently, with recent fires, floods and grazing by other animals potentially able to increase visibility of meerkats or open up new foraging areas. From Southern Angola through Namibia, Botswana and South Africa, nature reserves in these countries provide the best viewing opportunities.
1. Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa/Botswana
This enormous national park, extending over some 900,000 square kilometers and renowned for its predator watching, straddles the border between South Africa and Botswana, with the majority of it located in the southern Kalahari Desert. It is made up of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. The concentration of animals in the dry riverbeds of the Auob and Nossob rivers here, as well as the generally sparse vegetation of the park, combine to create good viewing opportunities.
When to go: As the Kalahari is primarily a summer rainfall region, winter is a more reliable time to go.
2. Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
As the name of this park strongly suggests, elephants are the main draw here, and more than 450 of them call it home. There is a huge diversity of wildlife living within the boundaries of what is now South Africa’s third largest national park, and meerkats are one animal that is fairly regularly seen.
When to go: As with other locations, it’s possible to see meerkats all year round, but sunny days are better and rainy days should be spent looking for other wildlife. Rainfall here is lowest in July (also the coldest month) and highest in March.
3. Karoo National Park, South Africa
This national park extends over part of the Great Karoo, the largest ecosystem in South Africa, covering about a third of the country. Semi-arid and sparse – the word ‘Karoo’ comes from the Khoi word for dry – wildlife viewing is easier in Karoo than in parks with denser vegetation.
When to go: The Western Cape of South Africa is a winter rainfall area so your chances of seeing meerkats are greater in the summer.
4. Meerkat Magic Valley Reserve, Western Cape, South AfricaSince 1993 and as funds have allowed, Grant M. Mc Ilrath has been buying up parcels of land where wild and free meerkats occur naturally and can be conserved. The reserve is in a huge ancient riverbed ecosystem and also has a river flowing through part of it. It is primarily a research base so the numbers of visitors are limited to avoid disturbing the wildlife too much. As a result, bookings need to be made many months in advance. For more see www.meerkatmagic.com
When to go: As it only rains here for a couple of days at a time and because fieldwork goes on regardless of the weather, it's possible to visit throughout the year.
5. Iona National Park, Angola
This is Angola’s oldest and largest national park in Angola, and extends over 15,150 square kilometres. Like Angola’s other national parks, its wildlife suffered hugely during the civil war that began in 1975. The sub-species found in Iona were discovered in 1971 and named for it: Suricata suricatta iona. However, little is known about them and they are difficult to see.
When to go: There is a short rainy season from February to April, with the heaviest rains falling in April. Avoid these months.
6. Skeleton Coast National Park, Namibia
At some point it seems likely that this national park will combine with the above Iona National Park in Angola to become the Skeleton Coast Transfrontier Conservation Area. Inhospitable and arid in appearance (the name was inspired by the shipwrecks of the windy, fog-bound coast here), the park boasts a greater variety of flora and fauna than many other southern African parks – including the elusive meerkat, which can be seen burrowing into the sand of the coastal dune belt.
When to go: May to October are the driest months in the Namib desert, but it’s also chillier then too (though hardly cold) – with daytime lows in August of 18 degrees C.