Zoology

The Diet and Feeding Habits of the Meerkat



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"The Diet and Feeding Habits of the Meerkat"
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Meerkats may be mainly insectivores (insect-eating animals) but their diet and feeding habits are far from boring. For a change of pace, they will even tackle a venomous snake.

The slim-bodied, cute meerkats, who call the Kalahari Desert of Africa home, are the "Kool Kats" of the animal kingdom. The meerkats have distinctive, upmarket dark "sunglasses" and natural solar panels (thin fur and dark skin) on the front for optimum sunbathing or optimum body cooling on rocks. Attention to community welfare and friendliness to humans are specialties. This alone ranks them as lovable superstars. They breakdown the "animal-human" gap! But it is the diet and feeding habits of the meerkat which offer the greatest source of "infotainment".

Meerkats do not like getting wet. Wet days are "veggie" days in the burrow, bonding with the family to ward off growling stomachs. But sunny days, which are generally the norm in the Kalahari, are forage and hunting days.

After grooming and a little sunbathing exercise, the meerkat is ready for food. At least, some are. Mothers of young pups stay behind for childcare. Babysitters remain to manage older pups while the rest head out to get food for the gang or mob (fighting meerkats) as the group of about 30 meerkats is called.

Either a banquet or fast food may be on the wish-list. A planned, routine menu is not the meerkat style. But they do attempt a form of "crop rotation". "They have a home territory of about 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) or more and hunt in a different section each day, returning to the first area after a week." www.sandiegozoo.org Food gathering or hunting, for the meerkat, is obviously a business requiring a measure of intelligence in an attempt to harness the fickle game of chance.

The banquet may include snakes, large lizards, birds and small mammals with a side dish choice of eggs or scorpion (dragged well through the sand, to neutralize dangerous chemicals, and poisonous tail bitten off, of course). The banquet is a shared experience, both the "cooking" and the eating.

But the meerkat fast food diet would put the Macdonald's offering to shame. Insects, spiders, snails, lizards, worms, termites, crickets and grasshoppers feature regularly. And for dessert? There is a tantalizing choice! Ant larvae! Yum in the meerkat world! www.meerkats.net Or there is the larvae and pupae of dung beetles, flies, butterflies and moths. www.durrell.org

Notably, in captivity, meerkats do not mind if their diet is varied even further. The meerkats in Melbourne Zoo, Australia are rather partial to fruit salad and vegetables.

And what about water? You would not find a gang of meerkats at an oasis. They are sociable animals, but they are not silly. An oasis is too risky; a meeting ground for too many "enemies" who may see meekats as an easy snack. Roots, tubers, some leaves and even the occasional tsama melon may provide all the fluid a meerkat needs.

For the mums and babysitters, food is usually home delivered. The pup who yells the loudest often gets the most food, unfortunately. As pups grow, they are taught to supplement the service.

It seems that the meerkats are very busy hunters and gatherers, busy digging in soil and grasses and oven overturning rocks in the hunt for food. Yet they themselves would make a tasty morsel for other hunters. Like good scouts, the meerkat is prepared. There is always a sentinal meerkat (male or female) who stands guard on a nearby rock or termite mound, ready to bark an alarm.

To further protect the gang, meerkats keep in close contact while searching for food. They believe unequivocally in safety in numbers. "This distance between foraging Meerkats averages from 6 feet (2 meters) to 45 feet (15 meters), but can extend to 150 feet (50meters)". www.meerkats.net

More studies still need to be conducted on meerkat behaviour in winter time or in harsh, drought-ridden summers when food supplies are scarce. It appears that the meerkats develop a system of burrows, interconnected, so that some fast food may be retrieved within the burrow system itself. No need to brave inclement weather outdoors!

The meerkats are amazing animals! More and more, humans are being entertained by their ways and drawn to seeking volumes of information on the life and times of a meerkat. Little wonder, the series "Meerkat Manor" is popular. Yet strangely, when it comes to the diet and feeding habits of the meerkat, we may know the diet well, but still don't fully understand the social dynamics of the meerkat feeding habits. So many innuendos, signals and cues! The meerkats certainly earn the rank of enigmatic, star performers.

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