Southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert


Semiarid plains among scrub vegetation

Safety in numbers

A “kat” is not a “cat” when it’s a meerkat, a vital, clever, and amazing weasel-like animal that is a member of the mongoose family. Most people know meerkats from the character Timon in The Lion King animated movie. However, instead of spending all their time with a warthog, most meerkats live in underground burrows in large groups of up to 40 individuals called a gang or a mob. For meerkats, there isn’t just safety in numbers—there’s also companionship. The mob is made up of several family groups, with one dominant pair that produces most of the offspring, but they don’t have to be related to belong to the same group. Meerkat mobs spend a lot of their time grooming and playing together to keep the family as a tight unit. This community existence helps the meerkats survive.

Don't forget the shades

Many adaptations help meerkats live in their arid, dusty environment in southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Dark patches around their eyes act to cut down on the sun’s glare, and long, horizontal pupils give meerkats a wide range of vision. Meerkats are built for digging and have a special membrane that can cover the eye to protect it while burrowing. These small diggers also have ears that close to keep out the sand while at work. In addition, meerkats have four toes (most mongoose species have five) on each foot and very long, nonretractable claws to help them dig.

Meerkats are known for their daring diet: they are able to kill and eat venomous snakes and scorpions without being hurt, as they have some immunity to the venom.
Able to survive without drinking water, meerkats get the moisture they need from eating roots and tubers as well as fruit such as tsama melons.
Meerkats are a type of mongoose and were once considered to be in the same taxonomic family as genets, civets, and linsangs. Now they are placed in their own family, Herpestidae.
The skeletal structure and teeth of meerkats and other mongooses closely resemble those of the earliest carnivores.
Other names for meerkats include slender-tailed meerkat and African suricate.
One of the San Diego Zoo's meerkats was the animator's model for the portrayal of Timon in Disney’s animated movie, "The Lion King."
When standing erect, meerkats balance on a long, stiff tail that they use like a kickstand on a bicycle.

Starting in 1983, we have had several exhibits of meerkats. They always make our guests smile as they watch these small, entertaining creatures standing on their hind legs, absorbing the warmth of the sun on their bellies, furiously digging for treats, or comically wrestling with each other. There are meerkats at the San Diego Zoo's African Kopje and in Safari Base Camp at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. It can be challenging to build a habitat that allows the meerkats to dig to their heart’s content without digging their way out! A wire net lines the bottom of each meerkat enclosure, and each exhibit has some large rocks or man-made termite mound for the meerkat guard to perch atop, ever vigilant as he or she scans the skies for that dreaded bird of prey.

We have been highly successful in breeding meerkats—over 250 have been born in our collection so far! Some of our meerkats have served as animal ambassadors—meeting the public at the Zoo and Safari Park, as well as at schools and television studios—helping us teach people about habitat conservation and the hardships many animals face today.

Fortunately for meerkats, they seem to be doing all right in the wild at this time. Yet movies and television shows have brought meerkats lots of attention, with many people wondering if they can have a meerkat as a pet. Although they may look cute, meerkats—like all wild animals—do not make good pets, and are illegal to own without the proper permits and licenses. Instead, head to your local zoo to enjoy these small creatures in action. They’ll be scanning the skies and watching for you!