meerkat facts

10 Marvelous Meerkat Facts About Africa's Famous Mammals

Those interested in the world of meerkats don’t need to visit the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. You can simply explore this list of meerkat facts to help you understand these small carnivorous animals native to Africa. 

For example, meerkats form tight-knit groups of up to 50 members. Additionally, they are among the few animals to appoint individuals to stand sentinels and watch over the others while foraging for food. Let’s explore meerkat facts and learn more about these animals.

10 Meerkat Facts

meerkat-close-up
Photo by Raimund Schlager on Unsplash

1. Meerkats have unique looks.

Belonging to the mongoose family, meerkats are burrowers living in sub-Saharan Africa with a distinct appearance. Their slender bodies, typically 25 to 35 cm long, perfectly suit their habit of digging into the sandy soils of their habitat. 

Moreover, meerkats have pointed snouts that can root out insects in the ground. They also have dark patches around their eyes, which absorb the rays from the African sun, preventing glare and helping them spot predators from afar. 

2. Meerkats are social animals.

meerkat standing
Photo by Hugo Herrera on Unsplash

Meerkats are social animals that rely on their communities, referred to as 'clans' or 'mobs,' which can accommodate up to 50 members. A dominant female and her mate sit at the top of every meerkat group.

Moreover, each meerkat follows a designated role like forager, guard, or nanny, which creates harmony within the group. For example, appointed nannies or helpers care for baby meerkats or meerkat pups born deaf and blind. (Female meerkats give birth to three or four pups.)

They also talk to each other with vocalizations and body language; they call alerts and make defensive postures when faced with hungry predators or environmental changes. 

3. Meerkats are immune to several venoms.

Living in the Kalahari and Namib Desert, meerkats live together with venomous snakes and scorpions. Since they also eat small reptiles like snakes and poisonous scorpions, meerkats have evolved a resistance to certain venoms1. Additionally, meerkats rub scorpions on the ground to remove the remaining venom from their exoskeletons.

However, the meerkat is only immune to venoms from animals they frequently encounter. Its high selectivity means some venoms can still kill a meerkat.  

4. Meerkats love sunbathing.

suricate screaming
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Next on our meerkat facts list: Meerkats often bask in the morning sun with their bellies up to face the light. While it may look silly, this behavior helps them regulate their body temperature.

During cool early mornings, a meerkat's metabolism is initially slow. So, they lie under the sun for warmth, giving them the energy to start the day. 

Moreover, meerkats sunbathe in family groups, huddling closely together. They also groom each other while sunbathing, removing parasites, and cleaning their peers. Likewise, meerkats use their bushy tails as makeshift umbrellas to protect themselves from the African desert.

5. Meerkats stand guard over each other.

When they eat, a meerkat mob appoints one member to watch while the others hunt for food2. For example, the appointed sentinel climbs a termite mound or tree stump and scans the environment for threats. 

It stands on its hind legs while its tail props its body up while the others eat or young meerkats play under the sun. As the first line of defense keeping mob members safe from eagles or jackals, the sentinel might be the first to die or go hungry while the rest are eating3.

Did you enjoy the first half of our meerkat facts? Uncover more exciting ones below!

6. Meerkats like to cuddle.

suricate on rock
Photo by MediaEcke on Unsplash

Meerkats cuddle each other to survive the harsh African heat. These highly social animals live in burrows six to eight feet deep, forming a complex maze of tunnels and rooms. However, despite the ample space, meerkats prefer to huddle together and interlace their fur and paws. Doing so keeps them warm and strengthens communal bonds. 

Additionally, meerkats modify this behavior depending on the environment. During summer, they reduce cuddling to keep themselves cool inside the burrows. They might even sleep on the surface. Regardless, meerkats remain in closely grouped clusters.

7. Meerkats can fight to the death.

The meerkat may seem harmless, but it is a territorial and vicious animal. In 2016, a study observed over 1,000 animal species and discovered that nearly one in five meerkat deaths came from violence within their species. 

Why are meerkats violent? Their need to survive a harsh life causes them to become aggressive. When food is scarce or rival meerkats encroach on their territory, mob members do not back down. During the mating season, meerkats fight each other, which could turn deadly. Their sharp claws and teeth help them hunt and fight.

However, meerkat fights establish a clear hierarchy within the mob. The winner becomes the dominant animal, while the losers get expelled and struggle to find food and shelter in the wild.

8. Meerkats hold eating contests.

When a dominant female dies, the power dynamics shift in a meerkat mob. While the eldest daughters usually take the throne, an ambitious younger sister with the right instincts can usurp the seat for herself. The competing daughters fight for the throne by gaining weight. 

A research study from 2016, featured in Nature, reveals that meerkats decide their next leader through eating contests. The female that eats more nutritious food intentionally undergoes a growth spurt that gives her a clear advantage, showing their ability to outsmart rivals and lead the clan beyond good genes or better access to food. 

9. Meerkats are invaluable to the ecosystem.

trio of meerkats
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Meerkats live in arid landscapes like the Kalahari desert and help regulate pest populations in the desert. They eat beetles, spiders, centipedes, and venomous scorpions, preventing an insect takeover that disrupts the ecosystem balance and harms plants and other animals.

Moreover, when meerkats dig their burrows, they aerate the soil and improve its ability to absorb water and nutrients. They help plants grow in the desert soil. Additionally, meerkat burrows are a haven for other small animals, enhancing biodiversity in the desert. 

10. Meerkats face several threats.

Human expansion in the southern region of Africa threatens meerkat populations. While not endangered, meerkats struggle for space as farms and buildings replace their burrows. 

Moreover, meerkats struggle against the effects of climate change. Thanks to climate change, rainfall patterns have become unpredictable, while extreme weather has increased in frequency. Sudden heat waves can disrupt their burrowing habits, while an erratic climate might reduce their food supply of bugs.

What is your favorite meerkat fact? Remember to share it with your friends!

Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with M.

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1

Holding, M. L., Drabeck, D. H., Jansa, S. A., & Gibbs, H. L. (2016). Venom Resistance as a Model for Understanding the Molecular Basis of Complex Coevolutionary Adaptations. Integrative and comparative biology, 56(5), 1032–1043.

2

Clutton-Brock, T. H., O'Riain, M. J., Brotherton, P. N., Gaynor, D., Kansky, R., Griffin, A. S., & Manser, M. (1999). Selfish sentinels in cooperative mammals. Science, 284(5420), 1640-1644.

3

Clutton-Brock, T. H., O'Riain, M. J., Brotherton, P. N., Gaynor, D., Kansky, R., Griffin, A. S., & Manser, M. (1999). Selfish sentinels in cooperative mammals. Science, 284(5420), 1640-1644.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Chinny Verana, BSc.

Photo by Anggit Rizkianto on Unsplash
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