Meerkats: Adorable, Unruly, and Scrappy
When somebody mentions Meerkats, you probably picture something like a fuzzy little humanoid standing at attention in order to guard the mob (which is an apt name for a group of these little guys). Or maybe you’re a Meerkat enthusiast, and you’ve seen some documentaries, so you picture them fearlessly subduing scorpions and gleefully crunching them up. Maybe you’ve experienced great anxiety as you watched a brave little Meerkat confront a cobra – and prevail! Amazing! Don’t worry, this almost never actually happens in the wild. And really, scorpions make up only about 2% of their diets, so the subduing and crunching doesn’t happen often either.
Foraging and eating
But anyhow, do they share those giant scorpions or cobra bites with their Meerkat families and friends? No! It’s every Meerkat for him or herself. Each individual spends a lot of time foraging daily for insects, like termites and grubs, but once they find them, become very possessive of their own food and are ready and willing to fight other Meerkats to defend their little feasts.
Their culinary manners aren’t totally heartless – whenever they are foraging, one member of the mob, usually a dominant male or female, will stand guard on the highest ground around to alert the others to danger. That means the sentinel isn’t getting any food for herself.
They can really communicate
Meerkats have at least 10 distinct vocalizations, and research suggests that members of the mob can understand specific messages and even recognize which individual is calling. After 20 years of research in the Kalahari Desert, one of the Meerkats’ native habitats in southern Africa, researchers figured out that sentinels used two different calls to indicate a threat – one for something creeping up on land, and a different one for something dangerous flying above.
What about the group dynamics?
Their mobs generally include from 10 – 40 individuals, often comprising three families that get along well. “Get along” is a relative term, though – these relatives of the Mongoose can be quick to attack other members of the group, particularly if the matter involves food, and especially when a dominant female feels somehow offended.
But like that big, loud, family you know that always seems to be yelling and arguing (but still love each other), the Meerkats are capable of coming together very effectively when the group is threatened – for example, banding together and hissing to scare off a jackal or caracal, or even another mob that has come a little too close.
At the Reid Park Zoo
The Meerkat mob at The Reid Park Zoo, has grown considerably since 5 of them arrived in 2017 and 2018 from other U.S. Zoos. They dig, bask, perform guard duty, run around, hunt for treats, squabble, and curiously watch the humans during the day. Every evening, they scurry obligingly into the night house around dusk, a very sensible cooperative endeavor by the group. They seem to realize that once they’re safe and warm inside, the hawks and other birds of prey that fly in from the Park every night can’t make a meal of them!
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On a recent visit, I watched the meerkats eat a Popsicle with small pieces of zucchini which they really enjoyed. They are amazing little creatures. Thanks for the information about their behavior!
It’s definitely popsicle season at the RPZ!