Beneath the surface of southern Africa’s dry desert plains, it is life as usual for the meerkat. Living in packs ranging from just a few to more than two dozen individuals, these highly communal, timid little animals spend much of their time underground, in the security of their burrows. In fact, for the first weeks of their lives, the darkness of the underground is all they know. But by the time they are about a month old, curiosity takes over. They work up the courage to venture outside. And once there, one of their first reactions is to try to stand upright on their thin, wobbly hind legs—an attempt to assume the famous meerkat “sentinel” posture.
With long forelegs draped over a sparsely furred belly, round head and pointed nose held high, crescent-shaped ears fanned out like tiny radar dishes, and black-tipped tail propped against the ground, the upright meerkat (Suricata suricatta) is, well, undeniably cute. This characteristic posture, however, serves a purpose far greater than cuteness—it is key for meerkat survival. Standing upright, a meerkat can see over low mounds and patches of grass in the desert landscape, where ground predators like snakes and jackals might be lying in wait.
In the early morning, when meerkats emerge from their burrows, one of the first things they do is stand upright to scan their surroundings. Their sharp binocular vision and wide peripheral range enable them to visually survey air and ground, and although small, the positioning of the ears on the sides of the head and the meerkat's keen sense of hearing allow it to zero in on the precise location of a sound. With several group members out to stretch their legs and have a look around, the morning predator check is thorough. And once their immediate surroundings are deemed safe, they attend to the next item on their agenda—breakfast.
Meerkats, which are members of the mongoose family (Herpestidae), feed on a variety of insects and arthropods, from crickets and spiders to beetles, centipedes, and millipedes. They also eat venomous scorpions, to which they are immune, and small mammals, birds, and reptiles. Meerkats also feed on tubers and roots, which are important sources of water. To find insects and other prey, which often are hiding beneath the ground surface, meerkats rely on their amazing sense of smell and on the long nonretractable claws on their forefeet. The claws, in addition to making meerkats proficient diggers, are also important for killing and tearing apart prey and tough roots.
Although meerkats are small, weighing on average about two pounds and measuring about a foot in body length when full grown, they may forage for as many as eight hours in a single day. And because they forage in broad daylight, they are highly susceptible to attack by predators. Thus, as packs move about, hunting and feeding, individuals take turns serving as the sentinel. Often, the sentinel positions itself in an elevated area, such as on top of a termite mound, thereby enabling it to see and hear over a greater distance. If a predator is detected, the sentinel gives an alert call and the foraging group runs to safer ground.
When confronted by a predator or an intruder, a meerkat group may band together, hissing, baring their teeth, jumping, and surging forward as a unit to intimidate or confuse their antagonist. When this behavior involves significant noise-making, jumping, and scratching at the ground, sending dust into the air, it may be referred to as a war dance. War dancing frequently comes into play when one meerkat pack intrudes on the territory of another.
Although living underground in narrow tunnels and cramped sleeping quarters with a dozen or so close relatives sounds less than ideal to us, the protection afforded by a close-knit community, including the increased availability and sharing of resources and the division of labor, is fundamental to meerkat survival. Indeed, for these unmistakable wild creatures of southern Africa, there literally is safety in numbers.
Kara Rogers is the senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is also a member of the National Association of Science Writers and a contributor to the Britannica Blog, where she runs a series called Science Up Front. She holds a Ph.D. in Pharmacology/Toxicology, but enjoys reading and writing about all things science. You can follow her on Twitter at @karaerogers.
This post also appears on the Britannica Blog.