More than a MERE kat!AREFA TEHSIN
Cute and cuddly though they may seem, they are actually competitive and mean!
No, meerkat is not a cat, even though its young are called kittens. It is a mongoose. With an attitude and an upright posture. Also called suricates, meerkats are social animals. Always alert and on the lookout with eyes glued to the horizon with thin tapering tales balancing their erect postures.
Inhabiting the South African plains and deserts, these social, squirrel-sized meerkats’ popularity knows no bounds. They are much tougher than they look. The venomous scorpions of the Kalahari Desert with their formidable, ready-to-attack stingers may make us yell and squirm, but not the blasé meerkats. They are immune to certain kinds of venom.
Although in the sleeping Buddha-shaped floating island in Life of Pi there were thousands of meerkats, actually their families constitute of around 20 members and the super-families, around 50. The collective noun for them is a clan, gang or mob! The gang generally has an appointed sentry with an hourly duty as they forage. She is supposed to be on the lookout for predators and warn the gang.
They have a network of burrows with multiple entrances out of which they emerge in the mornings to bask and groom. Their underside has a black patch which absorbs heat when it stands upright and a hot spot to flaunt after a cold desert night. After basking, they forage, mainly for insects. They have strong social ties and theyhave babysitters protecting the young which are not their own. Faced with danger, the babysitter hides the young with her own body by lying on top of them. Most of the gang members are related as they are generally offsprings of the alpha pair.
These comical and entertaining animals can be downright mean too. Generally the ‘alpha pair’ or the head pair kills the other kittens in the family or kicks other mothers out of their gang. They believe they alone have the right to mate. The outcast meerkats often form their own gangs. The junior members sometimes kill the kittens of the senior ones to improve the position of their own little ones. Would Gangs of Meerkats be too cheesy a Bollywood title?
Scientific Name: Suricata suricatta
Diet: Carnivorous. Prefers insects.
Life Span: 6 to 7 in wild. 12 to 14 in captivity.