Meerkat (Suricata suricatta) - Wiki
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[Photo] en: Meerkat (Suricata suricatta). de: Beschreibung: Erdm??nnchen (Suricata suricatta). Picture taken by Olaf Leillinger on 2005-08-13. Location: Zoo Leipzig (Saxony, Germany)
The meerkat or suricate is a small mammal and a member of the mongoose family. It inhabits all parts of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. A group of meerkats is called a "mob" or "gang".
Meerkat is an English loan word from Afrikaans. The name itself came from Dutch but by misidentification. In Dutch meerkat (as Meerkatze in German) means guenon, a monkey of the Cercopithecus genus which possibly derives from Sanskrit markata (monkey). The traders of the Dutch East India Company were likely familiar with such animals, but the Dutch settlers attached the name to the wrong animal at the Cape. In Dutch the name for the suricate is stokstaartje ("little stick-tail").
According to African popular belief (mainly in the Zambian/Zimbabwean region), the meerkat is also known as the sun angel, as it protects villages from the moon devil or the werewolf which is believed to attack stray cattle or lone tribesmen.
The meerkat is a small diurnal herpestid (mongoose) whose weight averages approximately 731 grams (1.61 pounds) for males and 720 grams (1.58 pounds) for females. Its long and slender body and limbs give it a body length of 25 to 35 cm (10 to 14 inches) and an added tail length of 17 to 25 cm (7 to 10 inches). Its tail is not bushy like all other mongoose species, but is rather long and thin and tapers to a black or reddish coloured pointed tip. The meerkat uses its tail to balance when standing vertical. Its face also tapers, coming to a point at the nose, which is brown. The eyes always have black patches surrounding them which help deflect the sun's glare. The meerkat has small, black, crescent-shaped ears that have the ability to close when digging to prevent sand from entering.
At the end of each of a meerkat's "fingers" are one, non-retractable, strong, 2 cm (.8 inches) long, curved claws used for digging their underground burrows and for prey. Claws are also used with muscular hind legs to help them climb the occasional tree. They have four toes on each foot and long, slender limbs. The coat is usually fawn-coloured peppered with gray, tan, or brown with a silver tint. They have short, parallel stripes across their backs, extending from the base of the tail to the shoulders. The patterns of stripes are unique to each animal. The underside of the meerkat has no markings but the belly has a patch which is only sparsely covered with hair and shows the black skin underneath. The meerkat uses this area to absorb heat standing on its rear legs, usually early in the morning after cold desert nights.
Meerkats are primarily insectivores, but also eat lizards, snakes, spiders, plants, eggs and small mammals. Like all mongoose species, they are immune to many venoms, and eat scorpions (including the stinger) and some snakes, without fear of illness, poison or death. They have no excess body fat stores, so foraging for food is a daily need. Meerkats are fairly small mammals weighing about 2 lbs. each. Length from the head to the tip of the tail is about 20 inches with the tail itself is about 8 inches long. Meerkats' noses protrude from their faces and at are 2-3 inches long. Like felines, meerkats have binocular vision, a large peripheral range, depth perception, and eyes that sit on the front of their faces. They have ears that stick out from the side of their heads for better hearing.
Meerkats become sexually mature at about one year of age and have, on average, three young per litter. Wild meerkats have up to three litters per year. Meerkats are iteroparous and can reproduce any time of the year but most births occur in the warmer seasons.
Reports show that there is no precopulatory display; the male fights with the female until she submits to him and copulation begins. Gestation lasts approximately 11 weeks and the young are born within the underground burrow and are altricial. The young's ears open at about 15 days of age, and eyes at 10-14 days, they are weaned around 49 to 63 days. They do not come above ground until at least 21 days of age and stay with babysitters near the burrow. After another week or so, they join the adults on a foraging party.
Usually, the alpha pair reserves the right to mate and normally kills any young not its own, to ensure that its offspring has the best chance of survival. The dominant couple may also exile or kill the mothers of the offending offspring.
Meerkats are burrowing animals, living in large underground networks with multiple entrances which they leave only during the day. They are very social, living in colonies of up to about 30. Animals in the same group often groom each other to strengthen social bonds. The alpha pair often scent-mark subordinates of the group to express their authority, and this is usually followed by the subordinates grooming the alphas and licking their faces. This behavior is also usually practiced when group members are reunited after a short period apart. Most meerkats in a group are all siblings and offspring of the alpha pair.
Meerkats demonstrate altruistic behaviour within their colonies; one or more meerkats stand sentry (lookout) while others are foraging or playing, to warn them of approaching dangers. When a predator is spotted, the meerkat performing as sentry gives a warning bark, and other members of the gang will run and hide in one of the many bolt holes they have spread across their territory. The sentry meerkat is the first to reappear from the burrow and search for predators, constantly barking to keep the others underground. If there is no threat, the sentry meerkat stops barking and the others feel safe to emerge.
Meerkats also babysit the young in the group. Females that have never produced offspring of their own often lactate to feed the alpha pair's young, while the alpha female is away with the rest of the group. They also protect the young from threats, often endangering their own lives. On warning of danger, the babysitter takes the young underground to safety and is prepared to defend them if the danger follows. If retreating underground is not possible, she collects all young together and lies on top of them.
Meerkats are also known to share their burrow with the red meerkat, yellow mongoose and ground squirrel, species with which they do not compete for resources.
Meerkats are the first non-human mammal species seen actively teaching their young. Children of most species learn solely by observing adults. Meerkat adults educate children how to eat a venomous scorpion. They will remove the stinger and help the pup learn how to handle the creature. 
Despite this altruistic behaviour, meerkats sometimes kill young members of their group. Subordinate meerkats have been seen killing the offspring of more senior members in order to advance their own offsprings' positions. 
Meerkats have been known to engage in social activities, including what appear to be wrestling matches and foot races.
It has recently been noted that meerkat calls may carry specific meanings, with specific calls alerting to the approach of snakes, birds of prey, or other predators. How these calls work is not clear.
More than one field researcher has reported witnessing meerkats in some sort of singing ceremony they compared with yodelling.
Meerkats live in southern parts of Africa dominated by the Kalahari Desert, an area of little rainfall and an arid climate with open plains. It spreads across 900,000 km² in Southern Africa and is about 4.5 times the size of Great Britain. The land is covered by a porous or soft sand that in many places is a bright orange color.
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