Meerkats: they may not have quite as much personality as Nathan Lane imbued Timon with in The Lion King, but they certainly come close. Their expressive faces and social tendencies endear them to humans for being similar to us but also ridiculously cute.
But make no mistake: meerkats may be cute, but they are ruthlessly efficient when it comes to working as a team while foraging, burrowing or even waging war over territory with other meerkat clans. Catching a glimpse of them in the wild can be fascinating, so keep these fun meerkat facts in mind during your Kalahari safari trip.
Meerkats Are Only Found in the Kalahari and Namib Deserts
Meerkats are a unique species. While they belong in the Herpestidae family with mongooses, they are the only species in the genus Suricata.
They exhibit highly unique traits compared to other mongooses, as well, including an evolved social structure and a tendency to live in burrows. They also mostly live in one place on the planet: the Kalahari desert. They can also be found in parts of the Namib desert along the coast of Namibia.
Therefore, if you want to see meerkats, the best places to visit would be Botswana, Namibia or South Africa.
Meerkats Live in Advanced Societies
Meerkats live in family “clans” dominated by a matriarch and her male mate. Labor is divided among the adult meerkats when it comes to digging burrows, foraging for food, standing watch for predators, and even nursing the matriarch’s pups.
One of the most notable of these duties is how several meerkats will act as sentries during the day while other members forage, play, or relax. These sentries will rotate, like people keeping watch. When a sentry spots a threat like a tawny eagle wheeling in the sky, they will bark out a specific warning call and send everyone scurrying back into the burrow. The drongo bird will even take advantage of this behavior by sounding a false alert when it can get a free meal.
Meerkats Have Highly Adapted Bodies
Adaptive traits of the meerkat include:
- Large eyes set at slight angles for great sweeping visibility as well as an acute sense of depth
- Dark circles around their eyes to reduce glare
- Large ears for excellent hearing and also to radiate heat
- Transparent third eyelids and an ability to shut their ears tight, both of which protect them during digging
- Long, slender bodies adapted for tunneling but also advantageous for keeping watch; strong hind legs and a stiff tail also help them stand upright
- Shovel-like claws for digging and snatching insects
- An immunity to scorpion poison at adulthood
- Thin-skinned bellies perfect for sunbathing when the meerkat wants to warm up
Meerkats Are Family-Oriented
Meerkat matriarchs only give birth to about four pups in a breeding season, so the entire clan looks after these pups to ensure their future survival. Some females will even help the matriarch nurse her pups by acting as wet nurses.
When meerkats sense danger, they will ensure that the pups are the first to flee. If they must confront threats, meerkat clans will place themselves in between pups and the danger to act as a shield.
One of the most surprising traits of meerkats, though, is how they can recognize individual’s voices like we would recognize our siblings’.
Come See Meerkats on Your Kalahari Safari
You can book a trip for a Kalahari safari tour in Botswana or South Africa to get a wild and personal look at meerkats in their home habitat.
Jill Liphart for Roho Ya Chui, Travel Africa