Habitat and Distribution: Found in grasslands, plains and savannas of Southern Africa; primarily found in the Kalahari Desert, which stretches across South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Size: Up to 12 inches tall and 2 pounds
Wild Diet: Mostly insects; also small vertebrates, eggs, and plant matter
Predators: Hawks, eagles, jackals, and snakes
Lifespan: 5-10 years
Reproduction: Meerkats are sexually mature at about one year and breed year-round. After an 11 week gestation, females give birth to an average of 3 offspring. Females can have as many as 3 litters a year. Babies are usually weaned between 49 and 63 days. Both parents, as well as non-breeding helpers, provide care to the offspring.
Behavior: Meerkats are highly social. A meerkat group, known as a “mob," "clan" or "gang," may include as many as three family groups (up to 30 individuals total). Each family group is made up of parents and their offspring. Mobs live in burrows consisting of elaborate tunnel systems with multiple entrances.
After a chilly night in the desert or scrublands, the first activity of the day is to warm up their bellies at sunrise by lining up and facing their bellies toward the sun. Their dark skin and hair help them absorb heat. When it's time to eat, one adult stays with the young as a "babysitter" while the rest of the mob forages by digging in soil and grass or overturning rocks. They will also take turns doing other jobs, including "sentry," "teacher" and "hunter." Meerkats are basically diurnal, but activity level also depends on soil temperature. In very hot weather they will retreat to their burrows to cool off and on rainy or overcast days they may not emerge at all.
IUCN Status: Least concern
Meerkats are widespread across their range, but their homes are taken over by agriculture. Like prairie dogs, they are often considered pests.
Meet the kits
Did you know?
- Meerkats are not cats. They are carnivores that belong to the mongoose family.
- While most of the group is foraging, one mob member acts as sentinel, keeping watch and sounding an alarm if predators are seen. Sentinel duty rotates throughout the group in the course of a day, and switching of duty is announced vocally. Anti-predator behaviors include alarm calling, running for cover, mobbing, defensive threats and covering the young.
- Meerkats have a natural tolerance to poisons and venom, enabling them to hunt and eat scorpions and venomous snakes.
- The dark circles around their eyes help them keep the glare of the sun away from their eyes. They have great color vision and can stare up at the sky and spot birds from far away.
- Meerkats are built for life underground: Long claws help them dig, slender bodies help them slink through tunnels, and long noses help them smell grubs and insects up to 4 inches under the soil!