11 Things You Didn't Know About Meerkats

The dark circles around a meerkat's eyes help cut down on the sun's glare. studio vanDam/Shutterstock

Meerkats are known for being incredibly cooperative and ridiculously cute, but there's so much more to discover about these gregarious, often stalwartly erect mammals from Africa. Here's some interesting trivia about meerkats, also called suricates, including how they like to live, eat, sleep and more.

1. They're Not Loners

Meerkats hang out in large groups — called a mob or a gang. This can be as many as 50 animals, but usually, they stick together in a more manageable congregation of 10-15 individuals. The mob is composed of several family groups, according to the National Zoo, with usually one dominant pair in each family. The meerkat families don't have to be related to belong to the same group. Females are typically the dominant members of the mob.

2. Everyone Pitches in

All members of the mob do their part by helping to collect food, watch for predators, and take care of the babies, says National Geographic Kids. The ones acting as lookouts will sound a shrill alarm if they spot a bird of prey, so the rest of the group knows to quickly take cover.

3. They Like Fixer-Uppers

No reason to build a new house if the neighbors have already done it for you. Meerkats are great at digging, but they typically just move in to burrows already dug by other animals, such as ground squirrels, says the San Diego Zoo. They often have as many as 15 entrances and exits with all sorts of chambers and tunnels, some more than six feet deep. There are separate chambers for sleeping and going to the bathroom. A meerkat mob usually has several burrow systems and will relocate every few months.

4. Communication Is Key

group of meerkats, one with its mouth open
Meerkats can make at least 10 different sounds. stefbennett/Shutterstock

Meerkats are extroverted and quite chatty with at least 10 different vocalizations, reports the National Zoo. Females tend to be more vocal than males. Some of their sounds include "murmurs, threatening growls and spits, scolding clucks and a defensive alarm bark."

5. They Watch the Skies

Meerkats know to keep watch for birds of prey. In fact, according to National Geographic, young meerkats are so afraid of birds that they'll even dive for cover if they see an airplane. A meerkat can spot a soaring eagle more than 1,000 feet away.

6. Bacteria Helps With Territory Marking

A meerkat wipes his scent on a shrub in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, marking his territory.
A meerkat wipes his scent on a shrub in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert to mark his territory. Lydia Greene/Duke University

Meerkats make a "paste" of secretions in scent pouches below their tails, which they rub on rocks and plants to mark their territory. The chemical signals found in the scent markers come from odor-producing bacteria that thrive in the secretions, according to a study from researchers at Duke University.

7. Fighting Can Get Serious

Don't let their cute looks fool you. Meerkats can be vicious when fighting over territories, and those conflicts can end in death. In fact in a study that looked at 1,024 animal species, meerkats were the most murderous. About 20 percent of meerkat deaths are actually murders.

Meerkats will try to avoid fighting, usually with bluffing and aggressive posturing, says the San Diego Zoo. But when there's no option but to go to war, both sides line up across a field and then race at each other, leaping with their tails straight up in the air, throwing out their back legs like bucking horses. Often one mob will psych out the other before any fighting actually takes place.

8. Bugs Are Best

young meerkat eating fruit
Meerkats prefer insects, but will eat reptiles, plants and fruit. DragoNika/Shutterstock

Meerkats primarily eat insects, using their sharp sense of smell to find tasty food such as grubs, termites, beetles and caterpillars. But they will also eat small reptiles, eggs, birds, fruit and some plants. They are also able to kill and eat venomous snakes and scorpions without being hurt. They are immune to scorpion venom and can tolerate up to six times the amount of snake venom that would kill a rabbit.

9. Meerkat Eyes Make Life Easier

The meerkat's eyes have adapted well to desert life. Dark patches around their eyes help cut down on the sun's glare and long, horizontal pupils give them a wide range of vision without having to actually move their heads. When they dig, a membrane (or third eyelid) covers their eye to protect it from sand and other debris.

10. They Sleep in Heaps

Photo: Super Prin/Shutterstock

When it's time to hit the hay, meerkats don't believe in space. They will usually pile on top of each other in their sleeping chambers in heaps, snuggled on top of each other for warmth. In summer when it's hotter, they may spread out a little more and may even sleep above ground.

11. They Settle Rivalries With Eating Contests

When a dominant female meerkat dies, her oldest, heaviest daughter normally takes over as leader of the mob. But sometimes a younger sibling will outgrow her sister and a rivalry ensues. They settle who gets to be the new matriarch with an eating contest. They manage to adjust their diets — and their growth rate — in order to try to outgrow their closest rivals.