Do you remember “Meerkat Manor”?
It was a documentary drama series which aired for several seasons from 2005. It follows a meerkat family (known as a “mob”) living in the Kalahari Desert, called the Whiskers. Flower is the leader/dominant female of the group, Zaphod is her partner and the dominant male, Youssarian is Zaphod’s younger brother and Flower’s ex lover, and Mozart, Tosca and Shakespeare are all Flower‘s children. In our journey with this group we followed several intriguing events including fights with arch rival group the Lazuli; storms; death; family politics, infanticide and the disappearance of a beloved mob member.
We were all riveted to the TV. The series was produced by Oxford Scientific Films and aired on Animal Planet, but commentary was pure soap opera rather than a documentary. We got to identify with the characters as we followed their lives through thick and thin.
What are meerkats really like “behind the scenes”? In truth, a meerkat family is not called a “mob” for nothing. Their social structure is indeed a bit like that of a Mafia family. The mob has a strict hierarchy and is headed by a dominant pair (the Don and his Moll). Only the dominant female has breeding rights and rival gangs are ‘eliminated’.
Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are small mammals related to mongooses. They weigh in at less than a kilogram, but their small bodies come with a cuteness overload. Their pointed faces are dominated by large eyes, ringed with dark “eyeshadow” to protect their eyes from the harsh African sun.
Meerkats live in the deserts and grasslands of south western Africa. These extremely social animals live together in burrows, which they dig with their long, sharp claws. Living underground keeps mob members safe from predators and out of the harsh African heat. These burrows can be five meters long and have multiple entrances, tunnels, and rooms.
Meerkats are great at digging, but they typically just move in to burrows already dug by other animals. They may have as many as 15 entrances and exits with all sorts of chambers and tunnels, up to 2m deep. A meerkat mob usually has several burrow systems – up to five at a time – and will relocate every few months.
Photo: Robin Hoskyns via SANBI
Meerkats are daytime hunters. Each morning, as the sun comes up, the mob all stand on hind legs and bare their bellies to the sun for a charge of solar power. The black skin under the sparse belly fur absorbs heat from the sun to set them up for the hunt. They use their keen sense of smell to locate their favourite foods, which include beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and scorpions. They’ll also eat small reptiles, birds, eggs, fruit, and plants. Scorpions are their favourite food. They are resistant to scorpion venom, but, just to be safe, they first bite off and discard the stinger before consuming the rest of the scorpion.
Recent research suggests that adult meerkats actively teach the pups how to hunt – including in particular such skills as how to disarm a dangerous scorpion. Teaching is very unusual in animals – even relatively sophisticated mammals like chimpanzees learn through observing skills in others and not through focused teaching by adults.
Back at the burrow while the mob is off hunting, a babysitter stays behind to watch over new-born pups. This duty rotates to different members of the mob, and a sitter will often go all day without food. The babysitters’ main job is to protect pups from rival mobs, who will kill the babies if they can. They also watch out for predators from the sky, such as hawks and eagles.
Photo: Functional Ecology
While the mob forages for food, one meerkat, called a sentry, will find a high point such as a termite mound and perch on its hind legs, scanning the sky and desert for predators like eagles, hawks, and jackals. A sentry that senses danger will let out a high-pitched squeal, sending the mob scrambling for cover. (The name “meerkat” is thought to be a corruption of the Afrikaans “mierkat” in reference to their favourite observation spot on top of an ant hill.)
Meerkats have a real hunger to succeed. In the race to the top of the breeding group they pig out to boost their own growth in response to a rival gaining weight. When a dominant female meerkat in a mob dies, typically her oldest, heaviest daughter will take her place as leader of the mob. But sometimes a younger sibling will outgrow her sister and then rivalry ensues. They settle who gets to be the new matriarch through an eating contest.
In the strict social hierarchy of meerkats, a dominant pair all but monopolises breeding responsibilities. Up and comers of both sexes can wait for years for the top spot to free up – and when the time comes, it’s usually the fattest meerkat that wins. Relatively few females will get the chance to breed, and the dominant female may even kill off any rival offspring that manage to slip through this hierarchy.
Just like many other animals, meerkats scent-mark their territory. They make a “paste” of secretions in scent pouches below their tails, which they rub on rocks and plants to mark their territory. The chemical signals found in the scent markers come from odour-producing bacteria that thrive in the secretions.
Don’t let their cute looks fool you. In fact, recent research shows that meerkats are the most murderous of all animal species – about 20% of meerkat deaths are actually murders. Meerkats can also be vicious when fighting over territories, and those conflicts can end in death. They will try to avoid fighting, usually with bluffing and aggressive posturing. Fortunately one mob will often psych out the other before any lethal fighting actually takes place. However when there’s no option but to go to war, both sides line up across a field and then race at each other, leaping with their tails straight up in the air and throwing out their back legs like bucking horses.
Meerkats are abundant throughout their range and are currently not considered threatened or endangered. However, recent research has shown that they are increasingly affected by climate change. In the Kalahari, air temperatures have steadily increased over the past two decades, with mean daily air temperature now 1.5°C higher.
Researchers have found that the amount of body mass that meerkat pups gain each day decreased as daily maximum air temperature increased. That decrease in daily mass gain occurred despite the adults feeding the pups more food items on hotter days.
Small meerkat pups exposed to high soil temperatures and heat from the sun can dehydrate rapidly. Dehydration in turn causes breakdown of muscle and reduces growth. Meerkats rarely drink, obtaining water through their diet instead. Continued increases in air temperature associated with climate change, as well as reduced or variable rainfall in the region, are likely to make it even harder for them to meet the demands of keeping cool and obtaining sufficient food.
It has now also been found that increased temperatures cause physiological stress, making meerkats more susceptible to endemic diseases, especially tuberculosis, which can wipe out an entire family (this also applies to other animals that are prone to TB).
Thus the greatest long-term threat to the cutest mob on earth is climate change, brought on by Homo sapiens’ overpopulation and rampant consumerism.