Today we look at one of the most famous mongooses – the meerkat! Suricata suricatta inhabits the Kalahari, a region of desert in South-Western Africa, in parts of Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia.

Physically it’s not that different to other mongooses – same basic size and shape, same boring coloration. The main differene is the lack of a bushy or hairy tail – the meerkat’s tail is more thin and stick-like. This is why it has its Dutch name, “stokstaartje” or ‘little stick-tail’.

The story of the meerkat’s name is a long one though. It seems to have originated with the Dutch seeing monkeys and calling them ‘sea-cats’ or ‘meercatte‘. Then those same Dutch people set up colonies in what is now South Africa. Here they came across meerkats and other mongoose species, and thought that they looked like monkeys. Which is sort of understandable. They do look a little bit like monkeys. And then the word ‘meerkat’ became the Afrikaans word for meerkats, and then the English word as well.

So the English call them meerkats because the Afrikaaners mistook a mongoose for a monkey and the Dutch mistook a monkey for a cat. I’m not sure what more there is to say.

As most people know from watching TV, meerkats have a very developed social system, living in groups of 20 or more animals, and foraging together while some individuals stand guard, doing that adorable standing on two legs thing. The standing on two legs is also used to warm them up – they are less hairy underneath, and so when they expose the skin there to the sun, it absorbs more heat. When it’s colder, then can crouch down to keep the naked area covered.

In addition to this systematic altruism, meerkats appear to have a relatively complex communication system, with different noises meaning different things – particular sorts of threat, or whether it’s safe to come out now, and stuff. They also show some evidence of active instruction of the young by example. Despite adults having some immunity to scorpion venom, the young are still at risk if they try to learn how to disable the arachnids by trial and error. So older individuals will actively teach them, showing them first dead scorpions, then ones with their stings removed, and finally uninjured ones.

In conclusion, meerkats are awesome, and an example of quite highly evolved sociality.

2 Responses to “Meerkats!”

  1. freethinker Says:

    there’s a complex social system…and i suppose roles and hierarchies. how often do meerkats rebel? what happens to sentries who are caught shirking?

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I don’t think people have been able to observe many individual shirkers, so I don’t know what happens to them. There is a fair amount of infanticide to enforce the fact that only the dominants get to have children. And I think that if one member becomes sufficiently disliked by the others, they just have to leave the group.

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