Meerkats originate from Africa, predominately the Kalahari Desert. They are a type of mongoose, weighing 720 to 820 grams. Their head and body length is 25 to 30 cm, tail 19 to 24 cm. Unlike many of our nocturnal native species, meerkats are diurnal and have binocular vision, a large peripheral range, depth perception, and eyes on the front of their faces. At the end of each of their fingers they have a non-retractable, strong, 2 cm long, curved claw which they use for digging burrows and digging for prey. The claws on their muscular hind legs are useful when climbing trees. They have an inbuilt ‘solar panel’ - a sparsely furred patch on their stomach enables them to absorb the sun on a black patch of skin when standing upright to warm themselves. Their lifespan in captivity is up to 12 years.
Generally in the wild only the alpha male and alpha female will breed, females becoming fertile at 10 months. They can breed every 2 months, but usually breed 2 or 3 times a year. Gestation period is 70 days, young born in underground burrows. Litters are usually 5-6 pups. Weaning is around 60 days old. The dominant female in the wild will chase away other females of breeding age when she is ready to breed and they will trail the group until after the pups are born.
Meerkats live in groups of around 20-30 members, known as a mob, gang or clan. One member of the group will act as a lookout while the others forage, using its tail for balance. The lookout keeps in contact with the other group members by peeping gently when all is well, and it barks loudly or whistles to sound the alarm if danger is present. Their main predators are birds of prey. Members of the group groom each other for social bonding. The alpha pair may scent mark their subordinates to show their authority. This is usually followed by the subordinates grooming and licking the faces of the alpha pair. All meerkats in the group help with babysitting and raising young. Females that have never had young of their own can still lactate to help feed the babies when their mother is away. Meerkats forage for food with their tails in an upright position enabling them to easily identify their fellow gang members. New meerkat groups can be created from evicted females meeting and staying with roving males seeking to mate.
Meerkats are good hunters and sometimes tamed for use as rodent-catchers. They are primarily insectivores, but their natural diet is varied and includes lizards, snakes, spiders, plants, eggs and small mammals. They appear to have developed an immunity to some venoms, such as scorpion venom, so they are able to catch and eat these without the danger that other animals have to face. Their technique is to quickly bite off the stingers and then consume the rest. A Meerkat will often drag any poisonous prey such as a scorpion or millipede across the sand before eating it to reduce their chemical defences.