A member of the mongoose family, meerkats (also known as suricates) have grizzled gray and brown colored coats of fur with dark patches around their eyes, which help protect their eyes from the glare of the sun. They also have a dark tip on the tail. Meerkats have powerful foreclaws for digging. Their pointed snout helps enable them to excavate prey from narrow trenches.
Meerkats' slender bodies are 10 to 14 inches (25 to 35 centimeters) long and their tails are almost as long as their bodies at 7 to 10 inches (18 to 25 centimeters).
Meerkats live in southern Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. They live in dry, open plains, savannas and grasslands.
Meerkats are gregarious and have at least ten distinctive vocalizations. Females tend to be more vocal than males. Vocalizations include murmurs, threatening growls and spits, scolding clucks, and a defensive alarm bark.
Meerkats primarily eat insects, such as grubs and termites, but will also eat small vertebrates, eggs and some plant matter. They may chew on tsama melons and dig up roots for water. They are very possessive of their food and defend their prey from other members of their pack.
At the Smithsonian's National Zoo, they eat commercial carnivore meat mix, dry cat food, apples, root vegetables, mealworms, crickets and earthworms.
In the wild, breeding generally takes place during the warm, rainy season—from August through March when food is most abundant—but may occur throughout the year. Males will fight with the females to initiate mating. The gestation period for meerkats is 11 weeks. They have two to five offspring in a litter. After three weeks, the young will first leave the burrows; they are weaned at six to nine weeks. By 2 months of age, the young meerkats look like adults. They reach sexual maturity at about 1 year of age. Fathers help guard the young and non-breeding individuals in the pack also help to care for the young.
Meerkats are diurnal and spend most of their active time foraging, basking in the sun, and grooming.
Meerkats live for 12 to 14 years in human care.
Meerkats are classified as least concern on IUCN's Red List. Related species listed on the IUCN Red List include the Indian brown mongoose and the Liberian mongoose, both of which are listed as vulnerable.