11 Things You Didn't Know About Meerkats

They're not loners and they make lots of noises to communicate.

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. Members of the mongoose family, these desert dwellers are a type of mongoose that weigh an average of about 2 pounds. They make an array of noises to communicate with each other and work together to find food and care for their young.

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 in one mob, 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. Meerkats All Pitch In

All members of the mob do their part by helping to collect food, watch for predators, and take care of the babies. The meerkats acting as lookouts will go to the highest spot in the area they can find — often a rock, bush, or termite mound, reports the San Diego Zoo. They will stand on their hind legs and make a distinct call when they are in place and ready to start their sentry work. While everything is safe, they will make a peeping noise, sometimes the watchman's song. They'll 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. 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. They Are Great at Communication

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." If a mob is approached by a predator, they will stand together to form an intimidating group with their hair raised, their backs arched, and they'll make hissing noises. Lookouts have different warning barks and whistles for predators that approach by land versus those that are swooping in from the air.

5. They Watch the Skies

Meerkats know to keep watch for birds of prey as they — along with snakes — are some of their fiercest predators. In fact, young meerkats are so afraid of birds that they'll even dive for cover if they see an airplane. They have amazing vision as a meerkat can spot a soaring eagle more than 1,000 feet away. Often, however, they will just crouch and freeze when they spot an airborne threat, hoping they won't be noticed.

6. They Mark Their Territory with Bacteria

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

Many animals use their body odors to mark their territories. Dogs hike their legs to urinate on their property. Cats say they love you by marking you with the scent glands in their cheeks and foreheads. Meerkats do something similar but a little more intricate. They 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 2017 study from researchers at Duke University published in Scientific Reports.

7. Meerkat 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 2016 study published in the journal Nature, researchers looked at 1,024 animal species. They found that meerkats were the most murderous. About 20% 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. They Love Bugs

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 dig to find tasty food such as grubs, termites, beetles, and caterpillars. But they don't limit themselves to bugs. Meerkats 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 the toxic dangers of scorpion venom. Researchers believe that meerkats can withstand as much as six times the venom that would kill a rabbit.

9. Meerkat Eyes Make Life Easier

The meerkat's eyes have adapted well to desert life. They have distinctive dark patches around their eyes that help cut down on the piercing glare of the sun so they have better vision up close and far away. Inside, their eyes have long, horizontal pupils. This unusual shape gives 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 them from flying sand and other debris.

10. They Sleep in Heaps

meerkats sleeping in a heap
Meerkats like to sleep in a heap. Photo: Super Prin / Shutterstock

When it's time to hit the hay, meerkats don't believe very strongly in space. Their burrows can be about 6 to 8 feet deep and have numerous sleeping chambers, but they like to cuddle up. 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. But the rest of the year, they find each other for a big pile.

11. They Settle Rivalries With Eating Contests

When a dominant female meerkat in a mob dies, typically her oldest, heaviest daughter will take her place as leader of the mob. But sometimes a younger sibling will outgrow her sister and then a rivalry ensues. They settle who gets to be the new matriarch with an eating contest. A 2016 study published in the journal Nature found that the meerkats manage to adjust their diets — and their growth rate — in order to try to grow bigger than their rivals.

View Article Sources
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  2. "Meerkat." San Diego Zoo.

  3. "Desert Dwellers." National Geographic Society.

  4. Leclaire, Sarah, Staffan Jacob, Lydia K. Greene, George R. Dubay, and Christine M. Drea. "Social odours covary with bacterial community in the anal secretions of wild meerkats." Scientific Reports. 2017.

  5. Gómez, José María, Miguel Verdú, Adela González-Megías, Marcos Méndez. "The phylogenetic roots of human lethal violence." Nature. 2016.

  6. Huchard, Elise, Sinead English, Matt B. V. Bell, Nathan Thavarajah, and Tim Clutton-Brock. "Competitive growth in a cooperative mammal." Nature. 2016.