The Mighty Meerkat

Mention the meerkat, and most people will begin hearing the Hakuna Matata song in their heads. They may also get a mental image of one of these small members of the mongoose family standing on its hind legs looking quite interested in the world around it. What you may not know is that they’re immune to some venom and can take down a poisonous snake. There is much more to the meerkat than what meets the eye.

Just the Facts

Meerkats are cute. There’s no denying it. Generally, with humans, anything small and furry is automatically considered cute. That pretty much sums up the meerkat: small and furry.

Their slender bodies are usually between 10 and 14 inches long with pointed tails approximately 7 to 10 inches long. Weighing less than 2.5 pounds, the meerkat’s furry little body varies from a light gray/tan color to a dark brown with black bars/splotches across their backs and tipping their tails, helping them blend into their landscape.

Check out this video to learn other interesting facts about the meerkat, and listen to the sqeaky chirping sound they make. 

The dry open plains, grasslands and savannas of southeastern Africa are the meerkat’s natural habitat. As diurnal creatures that live in these wide-open areas, meerkats forage and hunt right out in the open. This leads to their most recognizable behavior: standing as sentinel.

Cute Critters or Vicious Killers?

This sentinel position is how meerkats guard for predators. Living in communities of 3 to 25 individuals called mobs, they work together taking turns with each job: hunting, foraging, guarding and even child-rearing. Meerkats are the only carnivores that allow others to care for their offspring, called kits. There are only one or two litters of three or four kits born annually.

Mob Mentality

Mobs live in intricate burrows and sleep in piles for warmth. By working together, these industrious animals accomplish much more than a couple of them could alone.

The majority of the time meerkats eat scorpions, spiders, termites, caterpillars and beetles that they find under stones, around logs and in crevices. They locate these tasty morsels with their heightened sense of smell and then rapidly dig them out.

When it comes to taking down larger prey like lizards, birds, rodents and snakes for larger meals, the mob will attack in force. Those cute little furry creatures will gang up on the targeted prey and beat it with the heavy claws on their forefeet. Once the animal is down, the mob will tear it to shreds with those same claws. Cute, isn’t it?

Tougher Than They Look

Prey isn’t the only time these cute creatures become violent killing machines. If they encounter another mob, it becomes an all-out war. Male meerkats in the same mob will even attack each other to try and prevent mating. Female meerkats — bigger than males — will also attack one another and kill each other’s young.

Cultural References

Meerkats were highly revered in places like Zambia and Zimbabwe, where they were called sun angels. These sun angels were believed to be sent by the gods to protect and bring luck. This belief helped to shape the cultures of these people.

Popular Culture

Meerkats also appear in modern culture. Disney’s The Lion King has a laid-back meerkat named Timon. Animal Planet had the hugely popular Meerkat Manor, a series that followed a meerkat family living in the Kalahari Desert. It was so popular that Rolling Stone magazine gave the death of Flower the meerkat the Saddest Death in 2007 award. In the UK, Aleksandr Orlov, a Russian-speaking meerkat, is the face of comparison site Compare the Market and its semi-sister site, Compare the Meerkat. 

Meerkats are definitely cute little creatures, but like any wild animal, they can be vicious if they need to. People enjoy watching these curious animals at zoos across the United States, and with their stable population, they should be around for many years to come.