|Meerkat biology and behaviour
What is a meerkat and where does it live?
The meerkat, Suricata suricatta, is a small, diurnal, group-living carnivore belonging to the Herpestid family (mongooses). Meerkats are confined to southern Africa (including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Angola), and are locally common in the South-West Arid Zone and adjacent Southern Savanna, Karoo and Highveld regions.
Meerkats are cooperatively breeding animals; subordinate individuals help to raise young that are not their own. They live in groups of 2-50, consisting of a dominant pair and their offspring, which remain in their natal group into adulthood and help the dominant pair to rear more pups. The dominant pair are usually the only members of the group to successfully breed, and the likelihood that their pups will survive depends strongly on rainfall as this affects how much food is available, and the number of helpers available to care for the pups.
Pups and helpers
Litters of 1-7 pups are “babysat” by helpers at a burrow until they first emerge from their underground burrow at around three weeks of age. Very occasionally, subordinate females also breed and pups from as many as five different females are reared together in mixed litters containing up to 13 pups. Pups begin traveling with the group at four weeks of age, and are fed with invertebrates and small vertebrates by helpers for their first three months of life. Pups have to learn how to deal with difficult food items, including potentially dangerous scorpions, and adults actively teach the pups how to deal with difficult prey by gradually introducing them to live prey. Unlike related banded mongooses, meerkat pups do not form bonds with particular helpers. Helpers do not babysit or feed related pups more often than unrelated pups, but decisions to help seem to be based on the age of the helper, its sex and how much it can afford to feed at that time (measured by how successful it has been in finding food recently).
Meerkat groups defend territories against intruders. Intruders can be either neighbouring groups, newly formed groups looking for a new territory, or small groups of males that temporarily leave their own group and try to mate with the females in the group. Territory size is about 1-3 km2 and meerkats regularly defend these by maintaining latrine sites, making impressive visual threat displays and, if all else fails, fighting.
Maturity & dispersal
Meerkats reach adulthood at around one year of age. Males voluntarily disperse with other males from their own group at around 18-30 months of age, either immigrating into an existing group by replacing the current dominant and other adult males, or forming a new group with unrelated females. Females never permanently immigrate into existing groups, but are evicted from their own group by the dominant female in the latter stages of the dominants’ pregnancy. Older, pregnant females more likely to be evicted, and this is thought to be a tactic that the dominant female uses to increase the chances of her pups surviving, as pregnant females will often eat the pups born to other mothers. Although most evicted females return to their own group after the dominant has given birth, some may permanently disperse by forming new groups with unrelated males. In general, female dispersal is forced, but is voluntarily undertaken by males.
Last update: 23:11 06/03 2007