The meerkat works as a tight knit team for maximum protection against predators, using a system of sentry duty: this is a behavioral response to a life spent out in the open in semi desert conditions.
Team spirit is the key to the meerkat’s survival. Each member of a foraging party takes a turn on sentry duty, allowing the others to concentrate on finding food. The meerkat’s characteristic upright stance serves it well during sentry duty, when it uses its sharp eyesight to keep a lookout for predators.
The meerkat has sharp eyesight with good color vision. Its oval pupils are elongated horizontally, giving a wide view of the surroundings. Its tail is used like the third leg of a tripod to aid balance while the meerkat stands upright for long periods on sentry duty. It has a long, slender body which helps it slip quickly down into its burrow when danger threatens. Each of its forepaws is armed with four very long, strong claws for digging. Its hindlegs are longer than the forelegs, giving the meerkat a sloping, head-down posture when walking on all fours.
The meerkat lives mainly in drier parts of southern Africa. Extremes of heat pose little problem for the meerkat and it ranges over much of the vast Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, where daytime temperatures can rise above 129F.
As when foraging, the meerkat society relies on cooperation when breeding. A dominant pair forms the main breeding partnership, although in a large group two or three other females may become pregnant and give birth at the same time.
Four blind and naked young are born deep in the den burrow after an 11 week pregnancy, The young weigh about 1 oz. each and open their eyes in 10-14 days. They are weaned after about two months and are left with a babysitter when the mother goes hunting. Later, when the young are able to forage for themselves, they will be expected to assist in feeding the next generation.
When a meerkat scents prey in the ground, it digs frantically with its long claws. Insects make up most of the meerkat’s prey but any small animal, such as a rodent flushed out by the meerkat’s digging, is leapt on, pinned to the ground with its paws, bitten accurately behind the head to kill it, then quickly pulled apart and eaten.
The meerkat lives in a group containing up to 30 members. Groups usually contain two or three families. Meerkats are fiercely territorial and may defend a home patch of over 0.4 sq. miles against other meerkat groups. However, they appear tolerant of other species and may even share their burrows with ground squirrels or a yellow mongoose.
Like the yellow mongoose, the meerkat is suspected to carry rabies and had been persecuted as a result. Although its numbers have been reduced, it remains quite abundant across its range and does not appear to be in any danger.