Meerkats don't really wear sunglasses, but they do have dark patches of fur around their eyes. These eye patches act like sunglasses, protecting the animal's vision in harsh sunlight.
More Than Just Looks
Except for the black eye patches and black ears, the meerkat's head is white. Its body hair is multi-colored: light gray with black tips over most of the body, with several black stripes across the back.
Adult meerkats are about one foot long - but add another eight inches for the tail! Females can be larger than males.
These little critters are built for digging burrows. Their front feet have long, powerful claws for moving dirt. Since all that tunneling makes a mess, their ears fold back to keep out the dirt.
Not a Picky Eater
Meerkats forage for food near their burrows, turning over stones and rooting in crevices. Though their favorite food is a tasty insect, meerkats aren't picky: they'll also eat small mammals and reptiles, scorpions, centipedes, worms, eggs, tubers, and roots.
Meerkats live in groups with several adults, but only one male and one female (the alpha pair) are the "official" breeders for the group. When the alpha female is ready to breed, she chases off the other mature females. Even so, other females sometimes do mate.
The alpha female gives birth to a litter of two to five pups. The other females baby-sit the new pups, and any females who are lactating (producing milk) will help the alpha female to nurse. If any of these other females give birth to their own pups, they'll try to sneak them into the litter of the alpha female. If she discovers the imposters, she shows no mercy: she will kill and eat them.
During their first weeks of life, young meerkats' diet gradually changes from milk to more solid food. By the age of four months, they're completely weaned. At that time, young meerkats pair up with adult "mentors" of the same sex to learn how to forage for food and escape danger.
Colonies, Burrows, and Sentries
Meerkats live in groups or colonies that include the alpha pair, their pups, and other adults. There are usually about 10 animals in the colony, but sometimes there are as few as five or as many as 30.
In rocky areas, meerkats live in ready-made crevices. On the plains, colonies generally dig their own burrows (though they sometimes share holes with African ground squirrels). These underground homes are impressive! Most burrow systems average more than 50 feet in diameter and have 15 entrance holes leading to a series of tunnels and chambers in two or three levels.
One colony may have as many as five separate burrow systems scattered throughout a home range of up to nine square miles. Colonies are highly territorial, and fight to defend their borders from other colonies.
Besides watching out for invaders, meerkats also keep an eye out for predators like martial eagles, jackals, and snakes. One or more meerkats do sentry duty while the rest of the colony forages or naps. The sentries stand or sit on their hind legs and use their tail like a tripod for stability. If they see danger approaching, they'll sound an alarm by giving special barking calls. At the call, all meerkats dive into the safety of their underground burrows.
A group of meerkats may travel up to four miles in a single day.
Meerkats emit at least 10 different calls, including a threatening growl and several different alarm barks.
Meerkats can safely eat scorpions because they're immune to the venom.
The meerkat is a member of the mongoose family.