10 Fascinating, Furry Facts About Meerkats
Non-animated versions don’t typically befriend warthogs or lion cubs, but real live meerkats have plenty of adorable quirks of their own.
1. They Recognize Each Other’s Voices.
Just as humans can identify our friends’ and family’s voices over the phone, a 2011 study showed that meerkats can distinguish between the calls of different members of their clan. Scientists played a recording of the same meerkat from hidden speakers on opposite sides of test animals. According to WIRED, "The situation was similar to hearing a friend shout from the kitchen, then from the second-floor bathroom just a second later." Indicating that they recognized this as an impossible situation, the test meerkats showed “a prolonged vigilance, paying much closer attention than they did to other recorded calls. The situation didn’t compute.”
2. They Work Together ...
Meerkat clans, also known as mobs and gangs, hunt together in a collaborative effort that involves designated lookouts who rotate regularly and rely on a series of distinct calls to communicate to their compatriots. If a predator like a snake is detected, the gang will gather to harass the snake, biting and clawing at it until it retreats or is killed—a bold move one meerkat could never attempt alone.
3. ... And Even Babysit Each Other’s Pups.
While most of the gang is out foraging and hunting for food—or standing guard—one male or female, adolescent or young adult stays behind in the burrow to “babysit” any pups. This is not an official job—whichever adult is least hungry is put on pup-sitting duty—but the other meerkats do reward their sitter with food at the end of the day.
4. They Teach Their Young.
Adult meerkats are immune to scorpion poison—a good thing when you regularly make treats out of the stinging arthropods. But it takes talent to tuck into that sort of prey—even with their poison nullified, a scorpion can still do damage with his pinchers—and pups aren’t born prepared for such a vicious meal. Research done in 2006 showed that “helper” meerkats actively teach the younger generation how to hunt through a series of increasingly difficult tasks. "So when pups are very little they get brought dead prey, like scorpions, lizards, and spiders; as they start to get older, helpers will bring them prey that's been disabled, so if it's a scorpion the helper might bite the sting off before giving it to the pup,” scientist Alex Thornton told the BBC.
5. Gangs are Matriarchal.
Meerkat gangs, which can reach up to 40 or 50 animals, are structured around an alpha couple to whom most of the other members are somehow related. Within the dominant pair, ultimately it is the female who rules the burrow, and she isn’t always a benevolent boss. Only the alpha female is allowed to reproduce; if subordinate females get pregnant, the alpha female will banish them from the burrow or even kill their pups. Research conducted in 2013 found that some subordinate females will serve as wet nurses to alpha female pups in order to re-ingratiate themselves after getting banished.
6. Matriarchs Are Really Really Selfish.
As if infanticide and exile weren’t bad enough, alpha females only have their own interests at heart. A 2013 study showed that when a gang of meerkats approaches a road—which represents an unknown and potential danger—alpha females tend to suddenly fall back, letting lower ranking females brave the pavement first.
7. They Use Their Bellies To Keep Warm.
Meerkats' fuzzy tan coats give way to a sparsely covered patch on their underbellies [PDF]. The hair is thin enough there that you can see their black skin underneath—which is precisely the point. After a restful night in the chilly burrow, meerkats climb back out into the desert sun and stand up to expose to their bare bellies to the rays, which absorb heat and warm the animals up.
8. The Forked-Tail Drongo Mimics Meerkat Calls.
The African drongo scavenges for food by tricking other animals into abandoning their hard-earned meals with carefully crafted calls that imitate the warning sounds of other species. So after a gang of meerkats has made their kill or foraged sufficient food, the drongo will descend among them and mimic the same warning call a meerkat sentry might make in the event of a predator. The gang scatters, and the drongo gets a free meal.
9. Baby Meerkats Rely On Their Plaintive Calls For Free Food
This is another indication of just how specific and diverse meerkat sounds can be. A 2009 study showed that adult meerkats are more susceptible to spoiling their babies when the wee meerkats beg for food and attention with squeaky, high-pitched cries. As the pups age and their voices deepen, their mews have less of an effect on the adults around them, and they are forced to learn to forage for themselves. Researchers tested this by playing baby sounds around adult meerkats, who were suddenly inspired to give up their meals to older juveniles.
10. They Have Gang Fights.
Although they are social and even affectionate within their clan, meerkats are highly territorial and will engage in violent, all-out turf wars with neighboring gangs. The fights are waged as a collective, with each gang posturing and attempting to intimidate the opposition first. If this fails, the fight will be brief but deadly—less than half all adult meerkats survive any given year.
All photos courtesy of iStock.