Arguably the cutest, most lovable critters in Africa, meerkats have found their way onto our television sets, onto our movie screens and into our hearts…
Words and Pictures: Dale Morris
Unlike Timon, the adorable superstar from Disney’s Lion King movie, real African meerkats do not burst into spontaneous song and dance. However, they do have a remarkably complex vocal repertoire and, what’s more, live in an equally complex society.
But what is it about this modest sized member of the mongoose family that we find so appealing?
There are after all 31 different species of mongoose; and meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are just one of them.
Firstly, it’s their appearance. Unlike other mongooses, meerkats have rounded heads and pretty eyes, characteristics we associate with infants, and they are forever curious and ostensibly playful.
And then there’s the way they stand upright like humans, which is why many people refer to them as ‘the little earth men’. When you see them standing on their hind legs, clustered together like a caring, sharing family, it’s easy to understand why.
But it is probably their endearing comradeship, the way they care for their extended family, and their united bravery in the face of danger, that makes it so easy for us to be anthropomorphic about them.
Meerkats live in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa, mostly out on open plains, an environment swarming with predators and, as a consequence, they can never let their guard down or will run the risk of becoming a meal.
So how can a Meerkat afford to turn his back on a dangerous world in order to dig up his dinner of grubs, bugs and scorpions?
With trust. Meerkats really do look out for one another.
A gang of meerkats will consist of up to 30 individuals, and all will periodically take time away from feeding to scan for any signs of trouble. But that in itself is not enough to guarantee the safety of the group, and so special sentries are placed on lookout duty. These animals position themselves atop an anthill or a shrub and will shout out warning to the rest of the gang should trouble be spotted. Sentinel rotation occurs throughout the day among different gang members, and is announced by a special call.
Scientists have decoded more than 30 sounds made by meerkats, all of which have specific meaning. There is a unique call for eagles, one for jackals and another for poisonous snakes. If a sentry spots an eagle he will sound the appropriate ‘sky predator’ alarm and then hide underground, quickly followed by the rest of the gang.