Sentinels of the South African deserts, meerkats, Suricata suricatta, live in very close-knit colonies where each individual has their own role: baby-sitter, hunter or watchman, etc.
Mammalia, Carnivora, Herpestidae
55 cm long + 24-cm tail; less than 1 kg
~ 70 days, 1 to 5 babies
Deserts, arid areas, savannahs
insects, scorpions, millipedes, small reptiles, eggs, berries
LC, Least concerned
Way of life
Meerkats live in colonies of 10 to 30 individuals under the leadership of a dominant couple. A territorial animal, it digs complex burrows with many entrances, which it may share with squirrels or yellow mongoose, but certainly not with meerkats from other colonies.
As both prey and predator, the meerkat has to exercise vigilance when it hunts. Thanks to its small size, it is a treat for birds of prey and large desert carnivores. Taking it in turns, sentinels, with various degrees of experience, stand on high ground and monitor the surroundings, emitting warning calls that differ depending on whether the danger is coming from the sky or the ground. At this point, all of the members of the group quickly take refuge in the closest entrance of the burrow. If they are taken by surprise before being able to seek shelter, they group together, hairs raised and mouth open, and don’t hesitate to attack the opponent to intimidate or repel it. Pups are usually born at the same time. They spend 3 weeks in the burrow, supervised by an adult who doesn’t leave their side. At around one month of age, they begin exploring the outside world and learning to hunt, first only hunting harmless prey and then more and more dangerous prey, such as scorpions.
Meerkats can lean on their thin and muscular tails to stand upright and watch out for the slightest sign of danger. Using the powerful claws on their forefeet, they can quickly dig burrows where they can take refuge at the slightest hint of danger. Their excellent eyesight allows them to identify a bird of prey from very far away. A well-developed sense of smell helps them to locate prey in the earth. Their teeth are very sharp, allowing them to pierce insect shells. Exclusively inhabiting desert areas, meerkats can go without drinking as the water contained in their prey is sufficient.
Just like all of the other mongooses that they are related to, meerkats have built their reputation by fighting scorpions and cobras. In fact, they are not actually immune to venom. It is their thick skin and agility that protects them from poisonous fangs. Nevertheless, a cobra that manages to bite one would have to inject eight times as much venom as it would need to kill a rabbit!