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Kalahari meerkats

By Calvin Odhiambo | January 18th 2015

If you've watched Disney's The Lion King, you must be familiar with the character Timon. Well, Timon is a meerkat. Meerkats, whose scientific name is Suricata suricatta, are small carnivores belonging to the mongoose family.

Meerkats, sometimes called suricates, live in burrows underground and are organised in family groups called mobs, gangs, or clans. These mobs are found all over the Kalahari Desert, which stretches across Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Meerkats are fast and can run up to 60 kilometres per hour. They are famous for their upright posture, often standing on their hid  legs to gaze alertly. A few sentries will typically serve as lookouts, watching the skies for birds of prey, such as hawks and eagles. A sharp, shrill call is the signal for all to take cover.

While a few individuals guard the group, the forage for the foods that make up their varied diet. Meerkats prey on insects, lizards, snakes, scorpions, spiders and birds, with the odd plant supplementing their diet.

Like humans, they also have a habit of 'oversleeping' and sometimes wake up with a cold, especially during the rainy season.

Meerkats measure 25 to 30 centimetres from head to rump, and weigh less than a kilo. Their tails add another 19 to 24 centimetres to their length. Their long claws aid in digging their holes, hunting and fighting. They have a special membrane that covers the eye to protect it from dirt and rocks while they are burrowing. They also have special ears that they can close to keep out soil when they are burrowing. Their furry striped backs, on the other hand, keep them camouflaged.

Meerkat eyes have the amazing function of absorbing sunlight and preventing it from reflecting back into the eyes. This allows them to see clearly during the day compared to nocturnal predators such as lions.

Females give birth to one to eight babies at a time. The babies, called pups, are born underground, where they are safe from predators.

When two groups of meerkats go to war over territory, they line up and charge each other, much like human warriors did before modern technology. Meerkat wars can result in many deaths, so the animals try to avoid such conflicts by employing intimidation tactics.

Meerkats have a life span of 12 to 14 years.

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