Cooperation is the key to the feeding habits of meerkats, the slender mongooses of the Kalahari Desert.
Meerkats are small animals; adults are only about 1.5 or 2 pounds, and between one and two feet long. In other words, they are bite-sized morsels to a wide range of predators, including martial eagles in the air, and jackals, bat-eared foxes, wildcats, and caracals on the ground. Their gracile build also means that meerkats have no body fat reserves, so they have to forage for food daily. In order to have an opportunity to feed in peace, meerkats have to work together. As a result, they have developed one of the most complex and cooperative social systems in all of nature.
Each day, when the group goes out to feed, one meerkat is assigned sentry duty. He or she watches for predators while everyone else forages. The sentry is generally the individual who has had the most luck in foraging recently, and thus is the best fed. If a predator is sighted, the sentry gives a warning cry to alert the other group members. There is on one warning for aerial predators, one for land, and another for snakes. The meerkats assess the danger, and either dive into their burrows (in the case of an eagle or jackal), or "mob" the threat. Mobbing is when the group bands together and swarms a potentially harmful animal to kill it or drive it away. This tactic is used on snakes such as cobras or pit vipers. After about an hour on duty, the first sentry gets to begin foraging while another individual takes over guard duty.
Primarily insectivorous, meerkats will also eat snakes, lizards, small mammals, spiders, the occasional plant, eggs, or centipedes. Scorpions are a favorite meerkat snack; the little mongooses have partial immunity to many kinds of venom, so can sustain a sting or two with impunity. They generally snip the stinger off with a quick lunge and bite, then eat the scorpion's body at their leisure. With poisonous millipedes, meerkats will rub the prey across the sand, abrading off any toxin on the exoskeleton. Another handy foraging trick is to give one another a boost; merekats have been observed standing on the shoulders of their group-mates in order to reach honey stored in trees.
Meerkats are superbly adapted for foraging in the desert. The majority of meerkat prey is found underground, sheltering from the glare of the Kalahari sun. With strong front legs and curved, non-retractable claws, meerkats are perfectly designed to move a lot of sand or soil in a hurry in order to reach these tasty morsels. Their usual foraging technique consists of digging quick test holes here and there until a prey item is found. Generally the meerkats eat very small prey, so the finder consumes the whole lizard, spider, etc. The only exceptions to the non-sharing rule are for those meerkats who have to stay back in the burrow: the babies and babysitters.
All of the members of the group help to feed the babies for the first month after birth. Once they are old enough, the babies venture out and learn how to forage. They follow an adult closely, and watching it to learn which animals are edible. Up until that point, the babies have to compete with one another for the food adults deliver to the burrow; studies have shown that the pup with the loudest begging call receives the most food! Colonies with many adults helping to feed relatively few babies have the most reproductive success; the babies are larger and less vulnerable to predators when they leave the burrow for the first time, and the adult helpers can maintain their own body weight because the burden of feeding the little ones is shared among many individuals. These large, healthy babies turn into fit adults, able to help the next litter of pups, and thus the colony profits from its investment.
The Kalahari is a harsh, sere environment, fraught with perils. Meerkats are able to survive and thrive in their desert home only by cooperating closely with one another in nearly every facet of life. They take turns on guard, repel predators by mobbing, work together to take care of young, and assist each other in obtaining special treats such as honey. Together, these little mongooses can handle anything the desert throws at them.
"Meerkat pups go to eating school"