The Diet and Feeding Habits of the Meerkat

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Dubbed "sun angels" that protect South African villages from "moon devils" known as werewolves that are believed to strike wayward cattle, and solo traveling tribesmen, meerkats are small mammals belonging to the mongoose family. Inhabiting more open and arid country than any other mongoose species, meerkats colonize in multiple tunneled underground homes, located in rigid soils of treeless plains, and in grasslands. Using their clawed shovel-like feet to dig through firm hardened soil, meerkats set up alternate routes (as many as seventy per system) to allow easy access to their underground homes, and, while at the same time, provide themselves quick emergency escape entrances and exits in case they are attacked.

Meerkats live more specifically in parts of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana and South Africa. When referring to a group of meerkats, they are called "gangs", "clans", or "mobs". Although some super-families have been known to comprise as many as fifty or more meerkats at one time, the average group consists of about twenty; and they live for approximately twelve to fourteen years.

Meerkats are diurnal (active during the day), usually weigh less than two pounds, and are about one to two feet long. Their tails are about seven to ten inches long. As meerkats are cat-like, they have binocular vision and thus can see throughout a large peripheral range and their depth perception is advanced. They have long curvy claws that they use to dig holes, not only for shelter, but to find food.

Meerkats are slim and possess no storage of excess body fat. Therefore, they habitually seek food on a daily basis in order to sustain their small frames. During each hunt, older meerkats forage the grounds comforting their hunger with whatever foods they're able to find as a current "best fed" "sentry" acts as watch guard to alert the group if animals predacious to meerkats appear. Sentry lookout positions last for about an hour before relieved by a successive sentry.

Due to the sparseness of food available to meerkats in plains and grasslands, they separate while feeding, distancing themselves from as little as six, and as much as one hundred fifty feet. To aid in reducing vast separation whenever possible, meerkats develop more than one underground burrow system in order to situate themselves closer to food sources.

Predominantly insectivorous, eighty two percent of meerkat diets consist of insects like crickets and grasshoppers. Meerkat also eat plant matter, fruit, ant larvae, worms, eggs, arachnids like spiders and scorpions (They're seemingly immune to scorpion venom.), centipedes, millipedes, reptiles like snakes and lizards, small rodents, and birds. Meerkats in captivity will also attack and consume small mammals; and they have been spotted collecting honey from trees by standing on one another's shoulders.

While the bulk of the clan is out feeding, babysitters and young pups remain at the colony because pups don't forage until they're about four weeks of age. Once old enough and ready to forage, pups tag along with tutors who teach them how to hunt, including showing them how to remove stingers from scorpions prior to eating the arachnids. Scorpions are sometimes dragged across the ground following sting removal in a meerkat's attempt to rid the insect of its chemical defenses.

When food is taken to pups and babysitters left at dens, the hungry pups who beg loudest get most of the food.

When available, meerkats utilize ground water sources located near their colonies. However, their diet has been tailored to provide enough water to sustain them. Although finding insects that bury themselves deep in sand in order to reach underground moisture during summer months may be challenging for meerkats, and may force them to dig deeper for insectile meals; rainy seasons force buried insects to the surface again, thus providing insects aplenty to hungry meerkat mobs.

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