|In what year did Cambridge University start to study meerkats?|
The Kalahari Meerkat Project at Kuruman River Reserve started in 1993. However, Prof. Tim Clutton-Brock and co-workers started meerkat research in a different site, in Gemsbok National Park (today Kgalagadi National Park) some 100 km to the North-West of Kuruman River Reserve.
For an account about the project, please refer to Prof. Tim Clutton-Brock’s book “Meerkat Manor – The Story of Flower of the Kalahari” (click here for more information).
|Are your meerkats really tame? Could I walk up to them and cuddle them?|
The Kalahari Meerkat Project has habituated several groups of animals (i.e. they are used to human presence), but not tamed them. This is as close to nature as it gets. Important to note is also the fact that the KMP habituated several groups, so that also interactions between groups can be observed.
And no, you probably couldn’t walk up to the meerkats, if you were not part of the volunteers or Earthwatchers. The researchers have their means of letting the habituated meerkats know that they are no danger, and therefore they are accepted. If you don’t “identify” yourself properly, they might flee.
More details on habituation can be found in the Earthwatch field guide.
|Why do only dominant meerkats wear radio collars? Wouldn’t it be easier to track all animals? Why is it the female in some groups and the male in others?|
The radio collars are in most cases used to find the whole group again if it hasn’t been visited for a while. They are not used to track individual animals – it’s a price question, and the tracking device is also not set up to track down hundreds of different signals, it is not sensitive enough. If the project had unlimited funds, the researchers might collar (and even automatically GPS-track) all animals, but for most questions they strive to answer, it is enough to know the whereabouts of the groups. However, in rare cases it occurs that more than one individual of a group wears a collar.
The collars are a light-weight device made by a company specialising in tracking solutions for all kinds of animals. The meerkats tolerate the collars well. The collars have a total weight of 18 g or lighter, so the animal is not bothered by the weight.
The tightness of the collar is always important – like with cats or dogs. If it is too loose, they can get entangled, if it is too tight, it can be harmful. Therefore collars are fitted by the project manager, with the most experience, and checked when the animal is weighed. In the case of a swelling, the tightness is of course checked.
The collars are swapped between the dominant male and dominant female from time to time, so there is no rule that only one gender wears the collar. With the collar’s aim to track the whole group, it doesn’t matter. So let’s put it like this: Flower didn’t wear Flower’s collar, but Whiskers’. And in the Kalahari winter, it was always Zaphod who wore the collar.
|Where do the meerkats get their names from, and is there an explanation of the names?|
It is the right of the volunteer who has been observing the group to name the pups once they come out of the burrow and their gender is established.
Since the pups are named by the one volunteer, names are really a very personal affair. Here are some links.
Books & arts: Zaphod is Zaphod Beeblebrox from the “Hitchhiker’s Guide through the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams, and Yossarian is the main character of “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller. Aragorn you’ll know from Lord of the Rings (his meerkat siblings were Faramir, Elrond and Arwen), and Asterix is the rebellious Gaul of Goscinny’s and Uderzo’s comics (the meerkat Asterix is female, however). Hemulen, Little My, The Groke or Grandpa Grumble are characters in the “Moomins” children books, while Moomins’ dominant female, Grumpy, is one of 7 dwarfs (she had 6 littermates). The Moomins gang feature several 20th century painters like Kandinsky, Frida (Kahlo), or Picasso, and there are several movie stars, like Jacky Chan, Thelma & Louise etc. Shakespeare has a “peer” in Dante. The meerkat called “Arrested Development” was quite normal, but called after a punk band.
Personal relationships: Some volunteers named the pups after their family. And many meerkats have Italian, African or even Vietnamese names, reflecting the origin of the volunteer.
History, geographic, brand names: There was a litter in Young Ones bearing the names of indigenous people in South Africa (like Venda, Khoikhoi, Zulu). There are two meerkats called Ketamine and Benzedrine, after drugs. And there is a lot of history and lore: Greek gods, egyptian gods, Zarathustra, Aristotle, Hannibal…
|Are the dye marks the only form of identification?|
Dye marks are one part of our meerkat identification scheme, the other being ID chips.
The dye mark patterns identify each animal in a group, and can easily be seen and monitored during the volunteers’ daily work. In most groups, each pattern appears only once, but the same marks are used in other groups. In very big groups like Whiskers, it happens that the same pattern needs to be used for two animals because researchers run out of patterns, then they take for a female pup the same mark as for an old male – so they’re still easy to distinguish. For more information on dye marks, click here.
The dye is black natural hair dye, and has to be re-applied each 5-8 weeks. Early morning, while the meerkats are still sleepy, the volunteers go around with a bottle of black dye and a painter’s brush… If a meerkat doesn’t feel like being dyed, her new marks may easily vary in shape from what they should have been – if so, this is noted on the group mark sheets so that anyone will know which meerkat is which. And there are also reasons to change an animal’s marks, e.g. after group rearrangements. So the dye marks are not 100% sure identification, but an easy way to distinguish the animals during our daily work.
The fully reliable means of identification is the ID chip. Most KMP meerkats have such a chip implanted, only rovers joining from unhabituated groups don’t have one. The chips are identical to those used for pets; they can be read with a special device that needs to be held close to the animal’s body. The chip has the size of a rice grain and is implanted in the ruff of the neck with a syringe at the time a pup is examined for the first time. At this occasion, the researchers also establish the meerkat’s gender, and take a sample to do a paternity test.
The ID chip doesn’t have a sender (like GPS or GSM) so that the researchers could track or locate the animals in the Kalahari; the only way to track animals is the radio collar one dominant animal wears, to track the whole group, and this radiocollar doesn’t work too far, i.e. you must be within 50-300 metres of the collar to detect it.
|I read there is a fence around the reserve – why this?|
Yes, there is a fence around the project’s land – but of course nothing that would hinder the wanderings of meerkats!
In Southern Africa, everything’s got a fence around it. All public roads are lined by fences. The fence is thought to keep the reserve’s game in the reserve – the KMP have eland, oryx (gemsbok), gnu (wildebeest), red hartebeest, springbok and smaller bucks (not giraffes, sadly enough they tend to be struck by lightning in the Kalahari thunderstorms).
So the meerkats can wander freely – and they do so, as do mongooses, jackals, hares, bat-eared foxes etc. There are agreements with neighbouring farmers that the volunteers may trespass to their land to follow the meerkats. There are even habituated groups that live completely outside of the reserve. So it does happen that marked meerkats are seen outside of the reserve. But when a rover succeeds to stay with an unmonitored group outside of the fence, he officially disappears.
|Can I visit the KMP and the meerkats?|
Everyone can visit the KMP for two weeks on an Earthwatch expedition – please click here for more information. Friends of the Kalahari Meerkat Project also have the chance to visit the KMP on an exclusive Friends visit.
The KMP offers the opportunity to film meerkats in their natural environment – please click here for more information.
The KMP is however not open to the public, or for day visitors; being a research project, it does not have the resources to host guests.
|Do the meerkats interact with humans? If I come on an Earthwatch expedition, will I have a meerkat standing on my head? Will I see pups?|
I was amazed by the way the meerkats treated us. Most of the day they ignored us: There are meerkats scurrying around you, and all you get is an occasional look in the eye when they cross your path. While foraging, they sometimes look at us, but don’t interact. We’re not dangerous, we’re no food, we’re no mates – we’re just there. Only during the weighing sessions and at grooming time, they seem to notice you’re there. They come up to you, they might even touch you… The meerkats are not used to being touched or lifted, other than during the weighing procedure.
Chances are not bad that a meerkat will peruse you as sentinel post within the two Earthwatch weeks. Just play termite mound – if you sit down for a while, it may well happen. Chances to see pups are highest in the November to May timeframe, as more litters are born in this, the rainy, season. However, in good years meerkats can have pups all year round, so one of the visited groups will maybe have pups.
|Meerkats are so sweet – I’d like to have one as a pet. Where can I get one?|
We are vehemently opposed to keeping meerkats as pets. This is not how a meerkat should live, and it is not what you will want. There are several reasons for that:
- Meerkats are exceptionally social animals who will suffer from being alone – like an evicted female suffers in the wilderness. You will not be able to fill the void where a whole meerkat family should be, and whenever you leave, the meerkat will suffer.
- The meerkat will defend its family and territory. It might attack and bite intruders – even if they’re your friends or pets. It will mark its family and territory (you, your furniture etc.) either with urine or with his anal glands – a revolting smell that keeps for days. Meerkats cannot be housetrained.
- You will probably not be able to provide appropriate food and accommodation, i.e. several square kilometers of sand in an arid, but not too cold environment. The meerkat will dig, thus trashing your lawn, house etc. Meerkats are not snoozing most of the day, like cats, but rather dig most of the day.
- Some pet meerkats are caught in the wild – pups that were robbed from wild groups. Many of them die during transport, like too many other pups in the international pet smuggling trade.
- Last but not least, private ownership of meerkats is illegal in the United States – and it should be everywhere else.
Meerkats belong to the Kalahari.
|What did you researchers think about Meerkat Manor? Does it reflect the real lives of the meerkats?|
Those researchers who have seen Meerkat Manor were impressed about how well the movie reflects life in a group, without much exaggeration or understatement. Of course it was like watching in time lapse mode – the days in the Kalahari are usually a bit more relaxed. If you expect to see pups emerge from the burrow, a snake bite, predator alarms, intergroup interaction, some roving and mating all in one day out in the Kalahari, then reality will disappoint you – there are days where the meerkats do nothing else than getting up, grooming, foraging, hanging around in the shade over lunchtime, and then the same in reverse. So the movie shows the highlights of a meerkat life like pearls on a string.
We do have a great deal of respect for the sincere effort the Oxford Scientific and Discovery movie crew make to incorporate factually accurate story lines into the series. It is not a case of them writing a few ideas down, coming out to the Kalahari and hoping to pick up enough shots to make up what they want. In fact the ‘Meerkat Manor’ production has committed huge amounts of time to just being out in the wilderness with the Whiskers group recording the true stories that occur in their lives. To be honest the meerkats may even do a better job of making the script than any writer could.
|Where are Shakespeare and Tosca? Meerkat Manor suggested they are dead – or just disappeared?|
With regards to Shakespeare’s story, he was bitten by a snake and did fully recover to become one of the best helpers in the group, in fact it was more spectacular than was conveyed in ‘Meerkat Manor’. But the researchers truly do not know what his ultimate fate was. Meerkats are often killed defending pups. However it is equally possible that he was killed by a predator, dispersed to another group, or was killed by another group whilst trying to join them. The film crew and researchers weren’t there on that particular day. This is unfortunate, but the researchers cannot know everything about each of the up to 250 meerkats, as they do not follow all of them all day round.
Also Tosca (or Baddiel, as she was named in the project) disappeared without leaving a trace, or appearing at another group.
Both meerkats were last seen in (austral) Autumn 2005, and could not be observed again at a later time.
|Did you try to save Flower? When do you intervene?|
A statement by Prof. Tim Clutton-Brock:
“The death of Flower has caused a number of people to write to me about our policy of intervention so I thought it was sensible to clarify the situation. The Meerkat Research Project monitors the breeding success and survival of individuals and investigates the factors that effect reproduction and survival. Obviously, our results would be valueless if we intervened to save animals that would die. We consequently make no attempt to avoid individuals being killed by predators or dying for other reasons, with the exception of animals in the later stages of TB which are euthanased to reduce the rate at which the disease spreads. It is important to remember that the meerkats we observe are wild animals not domestic animals that are within our control. Even if we wished to protect individuals against natural processes (which we don’t), we should only be able to do so to a very limited extent: we are working with 12-15 groups and, on average, are only with groups for less than 25% of their time.
Any interventions that we carry out are aimed to answer questions about the animals. We do, for example, anaesthetise individuals to fit and remove radio collars and if their collars appear to be becoming too tight we quickly check and adjust them. We also give individuals (very) small rewards of egg or water to induce them to climb onto scales so that they can be weighed; and we carry out playback experiments with recordings of their calls to investigate the effects of different vocalisations. All these interventions are necessary to answer the questions that we are investigating.
The film teams are only allowed to film on the Reserve if they agree not to interfere with the animals. We certainly would not allow the film teams to do anything that affected the animals’ welfare. They focus almost entirely on Whiskers for around five months for each series and I review the programmes after they have been edited and advise on the scripts but we do not control what the film teams shoot, how it is presented or what is said in the programmes. However, our experience is that the programmes keep very close to the actual events that occurred during the periods that the animals were being filmed. We believe that our collaboration with Oxford Scientific Films is useful and productive and that the programmes give a realistic view of the daily lives of the animals.”
|How did Flower become the dominant female of the Whiskers? – and other questions related to Meerkat Manor characters…|
Or: Is Pancake still alive? How did Zaphod and Yossarian join Whiskers? Who fathered which pups? What was the cause of Carlos’ death? Who was Carlos? How did Hannibal loose his eye? How did Yossarian get his scar? Who is Melanie Zappa? …
A lot of background information on the Meerkat Manor meerkats will be given in the Friends section; Friends will also have the opportunity to ask questions to the FKMP and KMP in case the answers are not provided here or in the Friends section. Other questions are answered in the book written by Prof. Tim Clutton-Brock, “Meerkat Manor: The Story of Flower of the Kalahari”.
Please refer to these sources. We unfortunately do not have the resources to answer these questions from the public.
|Why were the Whiskers chosen as the Meerkat Manor heroes?|
Whiskers are a well-established group, so the individuals and their characters are well known. They were at the time of Meerkat Manor 1 filming the largest group, so chances are better that soap-opera action happens. Their territory was within the reserve fence. And they are not the most difficult to reach.
The crew mostly film Whiskers, their most strategic burrows (there are 700 or so burrows in the reserve, too many to put a camera in each), and their interactions with neighboring groups. Other groups are filmed occasionally.
The researchers usually don’t film the meerkats, but “just” observe them, and sometimes they record their sounds, as meerkat vocalisations are one of the KMP’s main research scopes.
|Some of the meerkat names known from Meerkat Manor do not appear on this site, and some meerkats have different names in the various countries. Is this all just made up for the movie?|
The KMP’s life-histories of each animal allow Meerkat Manor to tell genuine stories about the lives of individuals in a way that has obvious parallels with human soap operas – an animal docusoap. Flower, Zaphod, Shakespeare and the rest are real characters whose life-histories are included in the KMP’s datasets, not fictitious inventions.
However, as with human actors, there are meerkat actors who play themselves, and others who work with a stage name, or even act in another meerkat’s role. In the project, the researchers unambiguously identify meerkats with codes, but this is out of scope for a docusoap.
For more information about meerkat naming, please click here. A role-call of KMP vs. Meerkat Manor names will be available in the Friends section.
|We read about the “Moomins pup without claws”, a pup born with a birth defect, having no claws. Did it survive?|
Yes, he did – and well so. Fluffernutter, as he is called, was born without claws, but the group didn’t seem to bother and raised him like his siblings. He got through his first winter well enough and became an adult male. He put on less weight than his siblings, but was doing fine until he left the project area together with most of his family, after a group split at Moomins. Fluffernutter was the Project’s champion in food competitions. He’ll probably never win a dominance fight, but he won the hearts of many Earthwatchers…
Obvious birth defects are not very frequent in our population: There was another male with deformed claws, one litter with deformed ears, and one female, Beatrice of the Commandos, with 7 instead of 6 nipples.
|I found information on Wikipedia/online forums about Meerkat Manor meerkats which seems incorrect, compared to the KMP website. Can you please correct the Wiki/forum entry?|
So many Meerkat Manor fan sites, forums and other sites like the Wiki entry have sprung up that we can’t keep track of them all. Some of them tend to be accurate from our research perspective, while others rather incorporate wishful thinking of an individual of how Meerkat Manor should turn out – which is not bad per se, as it shows how much people care for the animals that are so dear to us.
We decided to create this website as an official source of information about our project and the ‘actors’ behind Meerkat Manor – but it is a venture made possible by volunteer work of all people involved. We do not have the resources or funds to constantly monitor and correct Wiki, nor to be present in all the forums. We can thus only recommend two sources for official information:
- the Animal Planet websites for the stars in Meerkat Manor
- our website for their backstage lives, and all aspects of our research.