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Notes from the Field: Laima Licitis - Visiting the Meerkats

Students on the salt pan in Botswana

Since transferring camp yesterday was tough, we woke up groggy and rolled out of our bed rolls at 6 am. After eating a quick breakfast, all of us hopped into our assigned field vehicles and sped off. No matter how tired we were, everyone was excited because today was the day we would see meerkats! I was in Gareth’s Land Rover and he was determined to find them!

Meerkat in Botswana

As we were driving in the search of the little creatures, we spotted a yellow mongoose and ground squirrel, mistaking both for meerkats and getting pre-emptively excited. However, on the third try, we hit the jackpot. We found a warren, which is essentially a complex of burrows in which the meerkats live, and which housed a group of 10 known as the “Greater Clan”.

Now, to be honest, my knowledge of meerkats was restricted to Timon from The Lion King before this trip, but now I realize that they’re much more amazing than that.

Unlike what their name might suggest, the meerkat’s closest relative doesn’t belong to the cat family but, instead, to the mongoose family. Just like mongoose, meerkats use their tails to stand up, but that’s where the similarity ends. Meerkats lack fur on their stomach because they use their bare bellies for thermal regulation. When it’s cold, they stand up on their hind legs and expose their bellies to the sun so that they can warm up. On the flip side, when it’s hot, they dig a small hole in the sand where they can lay flat on their stomach to cool down.

Meerkats breed during the winter, probably because meerkats subsist mostly on insects like scorpions which are abundant during the winter. Moreover, the scorpions live in much shallower holes during winter than the summer, when they have to dig deep to avoid the extreme heat. So in winter the meerkats have much more to eat, to feed their babies, and for the mothers to teach their young how to hunt. When a meerkat catches a scorpion, it is very important for them to first bite off the tail to prevent themselves from being stung, otherwise things could end badly.  

When meerkats forage, they constantly vocalize to alert other members of their clan to their presence, location, and to signal danger. Some, usually males, act as sentinels to keep the clan safe. The sentinels stand up and observe the surrounding area for a while and then switch out with another sentinel so that they can forage. While they look cute when they do this, they are doing it for their survival.

Meerkats here are under pressure from the livestock that wander these plains, which in recent years have been increasing with the net effect of pushing some of the native wildlife out of the area. The problem is complex: the livestock provide livelihoods for people and need forage, but especially at high densities cows, donkeys, and horses trample warrens, driving out or killing the meerkats in it.

Before we left, we observed the behavior of the meerkats as they were foraging. For ten minutes, we watched them, recording their actions every two minutes by marking if the meerkat was walking, foraging, vigilant (watching), social, or stationary. From my observations, the meerkats were walking 37% of the time, foraging 29.6% of the time, vigilant 20.4% of the time, social 0% of the time and stationary for 13% of the time. More observations would be needed to draw robust conclusions, but nevertheless, this gave me a good sense what is involved in animal behavior research.

Laima on the salt panWe then piled back in the vehicles and drove out on a large salt pan. The pan was a quiet white and grey landscape as far as the eye could see. I decided to wander off from the group and when we were called to reconvene, I ran back. It was such a surreal experience since all I could hear was the sound of my footsteps and my breath.

Later that day, we returned to the salt pan to watch the sunset, and to split up and walk out alone  for at least 150 paces. When we got to our solitary spots, we waited for it to get dark. Once it did, we could clearly see all of the stars. The stillness was remarkable, although at one point it was shattered by a convoy of Land Rovers full of ecotourists driving by, an indication that humanity, including us, is encroaching even into little-populated places.

On our way back to camp long after dark, we ended up seeing a zorilla, which is a weasel-like animal that looks like a small skunk and is rare to see—Gareth said that he hasn’t seen one in years. We also saw an African wild cat, which was super adorable and looks very much like a house cat! It seemed completely unfazed when we spotlighted it with a red filter, a method of night-time wildlife viewing that protects the animals’ eyes. Then, back to camp and into bed, in anticipation of an even earlier morning tomorrow to rendezvous once again with the meerkats.

Laima LicitisLaima Licitis is an undergraduate at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studying animal sciences with a concentration in pre-veterinary medicine and the sciences