Considering how ridiculously adorable slender-tailed meerkats are, it’s odd how little time I spend with them at the Zoo. To be fair, I don’t visit the African Rainforest Pavilion as often as some of the other buildings – and certainly not as often as the Savanna – so that’s at least a part of it. And within the pavilion itself, these little cuties are just slightly off the main path through, and even that small deviation can be enough to make one miss them when traveling between the lemurs and the gorillas. But it’s never a bad idea to stop and visit with them for a while, and especially when they are relaxing because it’s tougher to get a good shot in their dim exhibit when they are active. Having said all that, I can’t remember another time when they were all relaxing this much as they were on this day in April 2017. The shot I chose for June’s calendar photo was just a small part of a much bigger “nap fest”, part of which I have shown in this photo, at left. I decided to just focus on the one meerkat as I really felt it was a better shot for a full-page photo; I don’t think the group picture would really carry much weight if viewed from, say, a table halfway across the kitchen. But I’ll post several of the other shots from that day here.
Meerkats are small members of the mongoose family and the only members of their genus, Suricata. There are three recognized subspecies: South African, Angolan, and Desert; however, every Zoo I have checked seems to list them as “slender-tailed meerkats” and I have not been able to determine which subspecies makes up the population at the Toronto Zoo. They are very social animals, living in “mobs” (or “clans” or “gangs”) of around 20 members ordinarily, though some “supercolonies” of up to 50 meerkats have been observed. They spend an appreciable amount of time grooming each other (as in the photo at right) and will babysit the group’s young whether or not they are the parents. Incredibly, some females who have never produced offspring of their own will lactate in order to help feed the “alpha pair’s” babies.
They are burrowing mammals, creating underground networks of tunnels (which they spend nights in, in the wild – and also use to escape the noon-day heat of the African desert). Because this would be impossible in their exhibit at the Zoo (underneath a thick layer of dirt and gravel is a concrete floor), Keepers and exhibit creators have installed a network of PVC pipes, with multiple access and egress points. I don’t know if this is something that has been more recently added – I don’t think so – but I have noticed they have been using these tunnels a lot more often when I have visited them the past several months. It really is quite adorable to watch them pop inside a tube and then try to guess where they will reappear. Sometimes they just come back out the way they went in! These tubes haven’t completely eliminated their urge to dig, mind you: I actually find it rather a Zen-like experience to watch them methodically pulling at the gravel with their wee fingers, their claws making a very satisfying “click-click-click” sound as they work. Well, to be fair, I’m not sure “work” is a very appropriate word to use there: it appears to be more of a leisure activity for them, with the slow pace they set and the fact that they never actually complete any sort of tunnel or pit.
Ordinarily, one meerkat will act as sentry for the gang while they go about their business, watching for predators from the highest point they can find close to the colony and warning them with a shrill call when they spot a danger:
Occasionally, however, this particular clan will spot something incredibly interesting and will get together to watch it as a group, like this bunch did a couple of years ago when a peacock began strutting back and forth behind their exhibit’s windows:
It was like I was in attendance at the world’s laziest tennis match, as their heads turned from side to side ever so slowly, watching the beautiful bird wander around outside. I don’t think they were worried about it being dangerous so much as it being tremendous enrichment for them, as I didn’t hear a peep out of any of them as a warning. It was positively adorable.
Meerkats use their tails, which are more than half as long as their bodies, primarily as braces for when they are sitting up – which they seem to do a great deal of the time when they are not digging or sleeping. The black fur around their eyes cuts down on the harsh glare of the unforgiving African sun, aiding their vision tremendously and helping preserve their eyesight. (Think of eye-black such as is used by football or baseball players for similar reasons.) Primarily insectivores, meerkats will also eat other small animals, including scorpions and snakes. As an adaptation for this behaviour, they have evolved over time an immunity to certain kinds of venom, including that of the Kalahari scorpion. Not picky eaters in the slightest, they will even munch on tubers and roots that are exposed when they turn over stones as they forage. And here is something I thought was really cool (I learned this as I was researching this piece): In Zimbabwe and Zaire, the meerkat is known as the “Sun Angel” and protects villages from the “Moon Devil” or werewolf. They might be one of the world’s cutest talismans!
Before I wrap this up – and leave you with a couple more jolts of cuteness – I wanted to share an observation with you. I showed you the “big picture” earlier: the whole clan hanging out in the sun before I took the one zoomed-in shot which I used for this month’s photo. Well, I took a few more shots that day, and when I got home and had refined them a little bit, this one stuck out in my mind as a scene I had observed somewhere before:
Not being a particularly religious person, it took me a while to finally work out what that whole image reminded me of, but I eventually got there:
Yes, that’s right. I restaged the night in the Garden of Gesthemane… with meerkats. And I’m pretty ok with that, truth be told. (I used a fourth apostle; we’ll just call it the effects of inflation.)
Ok, let’s see what’s on the agenda for next month… oh my goodness! It’s an adorable animal whom many of you may have never thought of as “cute”; I truly hope to change your mind in that post! I’ll leave you with a few more meerkat shots, and thank you, again, for checking in. See you in July!
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