Sand and Stars

A Morning with Meerkats

30 Aug 2016

There is little more enchanting than meerkats – and 28 kilometres outside of van Zylsrus, you can get the opportunity to spend a few hours with a researcher at the Kalahari Meerkat Project.

Because of their unusual co-operative and altruistic mammal behaviour, the team of international; researchers have been studying them at the Kuruman River Reserve  since 1993.

(They were made famous by the TV series, Meerkat Manor… who can ever forget Flower, the matriarch of the Whiskers gang, and one-eyed Hannibal, leader of their “neighbours from hell”, the Commandoes gang?)

Public access to the meerkats is highly restricted and regulated – limited to the guests of the van Zylsrus Hotel and Leeupan Guest Farm – only on Sunday mornings, and only 6 guests.

So very early on Sunday morning – still dark, still cold (the lovely crescent of silvery moon sailing serenely along in Taurus) – we set off in order to be at the project early enough to be at the sleeping burrows of one of the meerkat groups before they woke up.

Two researchers take three guests each to watch – we went with the utterly charming French researcher, Thomas. You couldn’t have asked for a better guide; he was just great, and he absolutely adored those little creatures.

After a fairly long drive in the bakkie (pick-up), we set off for a glorious walk under the early morning sun to the sleeping burrows of the group he is studying… the Rascals gang! Our timing was impeccable…

The first meercat out of the burrow and having a look around for danger

… We hadn’t been at the sleeping burrows for more than a few minutes before the first meerkat made its appearance, and had a careful squizz around for danger.

The meerkat groups have been habituated to humans to facilitate the research. But habituated doesn’t mean tame. Habituated meerkats are comfortable around a few humans but they remain wild. This one noticed us, but ignored us as a threat. When all was clear he alerted the others that it was safe to emerge.


We were really fortunate as Thomas’ group had young pups – about 6 weeks old – here they are emerging from the sleeping burrows.

Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) belong to the mongoose family. Unlike their relative the mongoose, who chooses to live a solitary life, these desert dwellers form close-knit societies composed of up to fifty meerkats (the group we are visiting is a small group, fourteen members).


This is the alpha male of the Rascals gang. He is wearing a radio collar so Thomas can track and find the gang. They cover a surprisingly large amount of ground when they are out foraging, and also move to new sleeping burrows pretty frequently. He has certainly been through the wars… half his tail is missing and he has a really scarred up face. The little chap sunning with him is from a litter of pups that are now teenagers (copying Dad, is it not the cutest?)

The underside of the meerkat has no markings but instead a patch on their belly which is only sparsely covered in hair and shows the black skin underneath. The meerkat uses this area on its belly to absorb heat first thing in the morning to warm up after the cold desert nights (it gets as cold as -12ºC at night).


Thomas’ first task is to weigh the meerkats (they get weighed twice a day).


The meerkats don’t mind getting weighed… not least because they get rewarded with either some egg to eat, or in this case a nice drink of water.


While Thomas was packing up, these meerkats took advantage of a sunbed Kalahari style. After sunning themselves, a bit of grooming and a wrestling match between the babes, the meerkats set off foraging. The meerkat’s diet is mainly insectivorous, but they will also consume lizards, snakes, spiders, plants, eggs and small mammals.


This little chap had dug an impressive distance into this hole and after a few more sniffs – and a massive sneeze – full throttled digging ensued, until his whole body disappeared into the hole. He caught something crunchy.


There’s always at least one meerkat on guard – called a sentinel – determinedly watching the surrounding area for imminent danger. These threats come in the form of other meerkat gangs, martial eagles (which love to eat meerkats), snakes, or, on occasion, a bat-eared fox.

When danger presents itself, the sentinel calls out to the rest of the gang. They have different danger calls, not only for the level of danger but for the actual form the danger is taking… bird, snake, etc. When they spot a predator they bob up and down to gauge distance. This sentinel was avidly watching this…


… vulture in the tree. However, the alarm call he gave was for a low-level threat (they know that vultures like their meat dead) so the gang went on with their foraging. Had the vulture been a martial eagle, the alarm would have been high alert (an almost barking sound) and the gang would have disappeared down one of the numerous bolt holes they have scattered throughout their territory to provide quick cover. The sentry meerkat will be the first to reappear from the burrow and search for predators, constantly barking to keep the others underground. If there is no threat, the sentry meerkat will stop barking and the others will be safe to emerge.

A different meerkat will take over sentinel duty without any discernable schedule. They appear to simply recognize that the position needs to be filled and stand guard. What interests the researchers is that the act of standing guard is altogether altruistic because the sentinel is giving up valuable time to forage for food. Meerkats don’t have any fat reserves so they have to forage daily. And their foraging time is limited because of incredible temperatures during the day – close to 50°C some days. So standing guard means a lot of time spent not foraging.


Here is the alpha male doing sentinel duty. You can see his scarred up face (“You should have seen the other guy!”).

And talking of altruistic behaviour, everyone pitches in and feeds the babies. The babies make the most amazingly loud, constant begging noise, non-stop. Because the researchers spend hours upon hours every day with their groups, Thomas confessed that after months of it he sometimes can’t sleep at night because his head is filled the non-stop sound of begging baby meerkats (and we think that silly little catchy tune you can’t get out of your head is bad). It is whining on a monumental scale!


This little chap has just polished off an enormous scorpion he was given to eat. No sooner was it down the hatch than he set up his endless begging call again. (It is the most incessant noise… after just a couple of hours of begging calls I was considering digging around for a few scorpions to dish out.)

The dominant male and female unquestionably rule the gang, reserving the right to breed. The remaining meerkats adopt an `it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-child’ mentality. Females that have never produced offspring of their own will often lactate to feed the alpha pair’s young while the dominant female is away with the rest of the group. When the babies are too young to leave the vicinity of the borrow, one meerkat will stay behind to baby sit – although when it comes to serving as nursemaid, there doesn’t appear to be any sort of reward – only risk in return.


That wasn’t the case with our group – the babies were old enough to join the foraging. Here they are with the dominant female, their mother.


Camel thorn trees with enormous sociable weavers’ nests, like this one in the Rascal’s territory, are an iconic Kalahari sight. Unlike other birds, the sociable weavers use and maintain the nests throughout the year. Hundreds of birds live in the colony. Photographic evidence has proven that some of these nest structures are over 100 years old.


The Rascals’ territory is prime meerkat real estate – they have this lovely big water hole. You can see the white calcium minerals and salts precipitated out of the evaporating water.


The sentinels do 360° turns to look out for danger – here the alpha male is checking things out in the direction of the waterhole. They check out the land and sky in every direction, and so good are their eyes that Thomas told us that they will give a high alarm call for a predator in the sky, and it will take him a full minute before he can pick the little speck up in the sky. (You can notice the poor chap lost half his tail in a battle of some sort.)


The waterhole is filled by this windmill some distance away.


The few hours we spent with the Rascals gang was absolutely enchanting!

And oh… apologies to my astronomy friends who opened this blog expecting to read about a different sort of MeerKAT…

The South African MeerKAT radio telescope. Image credit SKA SA – Square Kilometre Array radio telescope (SKA) South Africa
The South African MeerKAT radio telescope. Image credit SKA SA – Square Kilometre Array radio telescope (SKA) South Africa