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A meerkat or suricate is a South African member of the mongoose family. Many people find the animals endearing to look at, and biologists are also intrigued by meerkat behavior, since the animals engage in several unique activities. In many parts of Africa, meerkats are considered lucky, much as mongeese are in India. The animals can be seen on display in many zoos, and in some regions of the world they are tamed and kept as pets.
The scientific name for the meerkat is Suricata suricatta. The common name is an Afrikaaner loan word. A group of meerkats is referred to as a clan, mob, or gang; meerkat gangs may contain as many as 30 individuals. The social structure of a meerkat mob is very altruistic, with members of the clan actively helping each for the betterment of the group as a whole. This distinctive trait may be one of the reasons humans find meerkats so endearing.
The coat of a meerkat is sandy brown, with distinctive stripes and a tapering black to reddish tail. The animals have narrow faces with crescent shaped ears which can be swiveled shut to protect the ear canal during digging activity. Meerkats also have distinctive black markings around their eyes, which help to cut down on glare from the sun. The skin of meerkats is black, and they have thin hair on their stomachs so that they can bask in the sun and rapidly absorb heat.
Meerkats use their powerful legs and claws to dig extensive networks of tunnels and dens underground. Typically, the animals seal themselves underground at night, opening runs as needed during the day. The animals are carnivorous, eating insects and other small creatures, and they appear to be capable of breeding several times a year. Generally, only the alpha pair in a meerkat gang breeds, although all members of the group participate in raising the young.
Starting in 2004, a documentary about several meerkat clans was broadcast on television in Europe and the United States. Called Meerkat Manor, the documentary covered 10 years in the life of the clans, representing a serious investment of time and resources on the part of the researchers. The documentary provided interesting insights into the social life of meerkats. For example, the animals actively teach their young, which is a very unique behavior seen in few animal species.
Meerkats also cooperate in other ways. At any given time, a single individual will act as a sentry, looking out for potential threats to the gang. Many members of the clan will help to nurse and raise young, and they will defend young in the presence of danger. Meerkats have also been known to form relationships with other animal species, often to mutual benefit.