Meerkats are not related to cats, but are part of the mongoose family.

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

Habitat

Meerkats live in southern Africa,  in savannah grassland areas where there is not much rain.  They dig burrows in the ground, choosing places where the ground is hard so their tunnels won't collapse. They shelter in their dens at night.  A colony of about 10-20 meerkats will have several burrows, each with a number of tunnels over a metre long with a grass-lined chamber at the end. All through their territory, a meerkat group will have tunnels so that they are never far from safety.

Body and Appearance

Dark patches reduce glare. ©Getty Images

Dark patches reduce glare. ©Getty Images

A meerkat's head and body length is about 25-30 cm, and it has a tail that is about 20 cm long. An adult meerkat weighs about 600-900 grams. The fur is a pale sandy colour, with brown stripes across its back. There are dark patches around the eyes that help reduce the sun's glare. The meerkat has a pointy snout which is used for poking into holes to grab food. The rounded ears are set low on the sides of the head, and have ridges that close when the meerkat is digging so that dirt is kept out. The front feet are used like hands for grooming and picking things up.

Warming up in the early morning sun, Kalahari desert. ©Getty Images

Warming up in the early morning sun, Kalahari desert. ©Getty Images

Behaviours

Peeping out of the burrow to check for safety ©Getty Images

Peeping out of the burrow to check for safety ©Getty Images

Meerkats come out of their burrows at sunrise after one of the group has checked to see if it is safe. They stand facing the sun as they warm up. When the whole group is out of the den, they play and groom each other, then spend most of the day looking for food, generally locating it by smell. Members of the pack each have set tasks to do.  

While the pack is foraging for food, some take turns to do 'sentry duty' for about an hour at a time. The sentry climbs to a high spot, and gives loud warning cries if a predator is spotted . These warning calls are different if the danger is a bird, or snake, or other. This way the pack knows how to react to the danger.

Food

Meerkats eat crickets, spiders, moths, caterpillars and grubs, lizards, mice, small birds, roots and melons, and occasionally snakes. 

Life Cycle

Young meerkat ©Getty Images

Young meerkat ©Getty Images

One female meerkat in the group will mate with the strongest male, and after 60 days will give birth to a litter of babies (called pups), usually 3 or 4.  These two adults are the dominant pair, and generally are the ones to breed.  

Pups are born blind and deaf and with very little fur. They stay in a nest in their mother's den, which is usually well hidden. The mother feeds them milk, and in order to maintain her milk supply, she must leave the babies and go in search of food. When she does this, the pups are looked after by babysitters, either male or female. When they are old enough to leave the burrow, the young are looked after by all members of the group.

Conservation status and threats

Meerkat numbers in the wild are reduced because of habitat loss, but they are not endangered.

Main predators are animals like jackals and eagles.

 

Read more about meerkats:

http://www.animalfactguide.com/animal-facts/meerkat/

Watch meerkat videos:

http://www.arkive.org/meerkat/suricata-suricatta/