The meerkat (Suricata suricatta) is a small species of mongoose (Herpestidae). It is distributed in southwestern Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa. Although meerkats are adapted for arid climates, they also live in savannahs, grasslands, alkaline plains, and rocky banks of dried water sources (van Staaden, 1994).
Meerkats have a slender body and long limbs. They average 245-290 mm in length excluding the tail, which is typically 190-240 mm in length. Males are slightly larger than females, with males weighing about 731 g and females about 720 g. Meerkats have a rounded skullcap, large orbits, thin zygomatic arches, a pointed snout, and lack a sagittal crest. Pelage color is dependent upon latitude, with northern populations having lighter coats than southern populations. Several features distinguish meerkats from most other mongoose species including enlarged claws, a slender tail, and three upper and lower premolars (van Staaden, 1994).
Meerkats burrow and are well adapted for digging. They have enlarged claws, narrow feet and hands, absence of the pollex and hallux, and closely aligned digits. Although some populations build burrows themselves, meerkats often inhabit the burrows built by other small mammals. They may even share burrows with other species with which they do not compete for resources. Colonies that inhabit rocky areas typically live in rock crevices (van Staaden, 1994).
Daily activity among meerkats is dictated by soil temperature. Although they are diurnal, they wait to leave their burrows until the soil is warm. Additionaly, they do not leave their burrows on cold or rainy days (van Staaden, 1994).
Reproduction occurs throughout the year because meerkats are not seasonal breeders and females come into estrus at all times of year. However, births typically occur during the warmer, wet seasons from August to November, January, and March. Litters average two to five offspring in the wild. Young are altricial (born before fully developed), and they cannot open their eyes or ears for the first 10 days of life, and cannot urinate or defecate without stimulation from their mother (van Staaden, 1994).
Meerkats live in colonies ranging from two to 30 individuals with up to three family units within each pack. Packs typically migrate among multiple burrows within a single home range. Migration is influenced by several factors including resource availability, population density, flooding, and predation threats. Males typically migrate to other groups while females remain in their natal pack. Aggressive behavior between packs has been observed, suggesting that packs are highly territorial (van Staaden, 1994).
Individuals typically forage alone but remain in visual and vocal contact with the social group. Meerkats are mostly insectivorous, however, small vertebrates, eggs, and plant matter are common in their diet as well. Populations that live in regions with low water supply often obtain water by digging up tubers and roots (van Staaden, 1994).
Additional Information on the Skull
Click on the thumbnails below for labeled images of the skull in standard anatomical views.
This specimen, a female, was collected from Narcas, 5 miles south of Liliefontein, Namaqualand, Cape Province, South Africa by T. Larson on 21 February 1950. It was made available to The University of Texas High-Resolution X-ray CT Facility for scanning courtesy of Dr. Blaire Van Valkenburgh of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles. Funding for scanning and image processing was provided by Dr. Van Valkenburgh and by a National Science Foundation Digital Libraries Initiative grant to Dr. Timothy Rowe of The University of Texas at Austin. The meerkat is one of several carnivorans included in ongoing research of respiratory turbinates by Dr. Van Valkenburgh.