Those Entertaining Little Hunters
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SOUTH AFRICA
THERE he stood on his hind legs in the scorching sun, clinging tenaciously to the flimsy branches while balancing like a tripod with his tail. With intense concentration, he scanned the sky and ground for any sign of danger. His companions were reassured that all was well by his periodic little brrp and peep as they foraged nearby. He would remain on duty until relieved by one of his friends—even if it took another hour!
Who is this creature? The meerkat. Measuring only about a foot [40 cm] from its nose to the tip of its tail, this miniature carnivore is quite sociable and lives in close-knit teams of between 10 and 30.
Each morning as the meerkats emerge from their burrow, the group will line up on their hind legs and face the rising sun to warm themselves after the night’s chill. There they groom one another tenderly, all the while chirruping and peeping in a friendly manner. These genialities can take half an hour or more. Soon, though, they trot off together for the day’s hunt.
The meerkats’ organized approach to hunting ensures a constant supply of insects and small reptiles. And what an appetite they have! So much exertion is required to satisfy it that by midday most of them will take a nap in the shade of a bush or tree, some digging out a heap of cool sand to sprawl on.
But why the need for a sentry? Because these hunters are also choice prey. As the meerkat energetically digs through the hard ground—on occasion moving several times its own weight for just one grub—it is a tempting target for watchful jackals or birds of prey.
What if the sentry senses danger? His sudden strangled cry brings immediate response—a mad dash for the nearest hole. However, if the sentry’s warning cry signals the approach of a rival team of meerkats, the home team will not bolt. Instead, they will stand together, hunchbacked and bristling, tails erect like antennae. The group will chitter as they advance toward the intruders, some of them jumping up and down stiff-leggedly as if engaged in a war dance. This united front is frequently enough to rout the rivals.
A Cooperative Effort
Meerkats often cooperate with one another. This is especially evident in the way they look after their kittens. In the first couple of weeks after their birth, these newcomers are the center of attention. The rest of the clan constantly visit the mother and offspring. And what a welcome is given when she brings them out of the burrow for the first time! The whole clan comes to nibble her neck affectionately, squealing with delight, and to rub tenderly against the newcomers.
For a few weeks, the whole team will help to care for the little ones. Most will eagerly take turns baby-sitting while the rest go hunting. Some females who have no kittens of their own will spontaneously produce milk in order to share the nursing duties—thus reducing the stress on the mother. All this diligence leaves little time for the baby-sitter to forage. As a result, some have lost 10 percent of their weight while helping to care for a litter!
When the kittens are old enough to leave the burrow and join in the daily hunt, willing adults take turns patiently teaching each youngster the art of hunting. Often, the choice catch is surrendered to youngsters, even if it means that the adults go a little hungry that day. If a sentry’s warning cry signals the meerkats to scurry to their holes, at least one of them will make quite sure that the kittens get there safely too.
Well Worth Watching
Meerkats tame easily and are affectionate. “All in all,” observes Maberly’s Mammals of Southern Africa, “these interesting little animals must certainly be amongst the most appealing, charming and endearing mammals in southern Africa and are always well worth spending some time watching.”
Alain, who has filmed meerkats for years, agrees. He recalls the occasion when a female came out of the burrow carrying her four-day-old baby in her mouth and, whimpering at him, laid it at his feet. He thought it was dead. “But when I picked it up gently,” he said, “I realised it was alive, and she simply wanted to introduce it to me first, before the other meerkats rushed over to congratulate her. I was so overcome I never even thought of taking pictures.”
Sylvie, who has also observed meerkats in the wild for years, fondly remembers the early morning that she was prone on the ground next to the burrow when the meerkats emerged. They lined up in their usual manner a few inches from her and began their ritual of grooming and cuddling. When she spoke to them, they chirruped in reply. Sylvie gently raised her finger toward the first one, a female, and started caressing her—right up to her ear. She wriggled with pleasure and began to groom the next one in line. “I am accepted in their cuddling ceremony,” exclaimed Sylvie. “What a privilege!”
Many are the anecdotes of those who have spent time with meerkats. Truly, these are entertaining little hunters!
[Pictures on page 26]
Routing the enemy
The sentry on duty
Warming up before the day’s hunt
All photos: © Nigel J. Dennis