Fota Wildlife Park is pleased to announce the arrival of a troop of meerkats to the Park. Many people will recognise these cute little creatures from the movie The Lion King, the TV show Meerkat Manor and also all those meerkat adverts.
The park have six meerkats, including a mother and her three pups from Belfast Zoo. Tippy the mother is six years old and her three female pups, Blondie, Daisy and Bertha, are only one year old.
Just like Fota's giraffes and ostrich, meerkats are found in the savannahs and open plains of southern Africa, so our meerkats should feel right at home in their new enclosure overlooking Fota's African Plains. In keeping with the African theme at the new entrance, the meerkats will also have the company of mangabeys and guinea fowl within their enclosure.
Now contrary to what most people think, meerkats are not a type of cat but are actually part of the mongoose family, which are weasel-like carnivores. Meerkats are mainly insectivores, so they love insects like millipedes and centipedes, and to help them find their food they have long claws on their front feet that act as shovels for digging. But they also eat eggs, lizards, snakes, scorpions and even birds, if they can catch them! Meerkats are able to kill and eat venomous snakes and scorpions without being hurt, as they have developed some immunity to the stings. As for water, meerkats don't need to have a water source as they get their water from roots and fruits such as melons.
Unlike other mongooses which are solitary and nocturnal, meerkats are very social and live in groups called mobs. These mobs are made up of several families, but there is always one dominant female who leads the group, and so at the moment this is Tippy. There is also always a dominant male, and it is this dominant pair that produces almost 80% of the offspring. So we'll have to make sure to get a male meerkat to keep Tippy company!
What makes these little guys so entertaining is the fact that they have their own daily meerkat routine. First thing in the morning the meerkats sunbathe, like Fota's ring-tailed lemurs, and this helps them to regulate their body temperature. So when they feel cold they lie on the warm ground or sit up sunning themselves, and when they feel too hot they go into their burrow and lie down. The hair on their belly is quite thin and this helps them to warm up or cool down quickly.
After they have warmed up in the sunshine the next thing is for the meerkats to get to work. Cleverly enough meerkats share out their ‘housework' and this is one of the reasons the mob is made up of several families - many paws make light work! Throughout the day each meerkat takes a turn at different jobs, such as feeding, teaching the young how to forage, babysitting the pups and sentinel duty. In between these jobs they look for food.
Since the alpha, or dominant, female gives birth to most of the young the other meerkats help to raise them. They do this by babysitting and also teaching the young how to forage. Normally a litter of five or six pups are born twice or three times a year, depending on food availability. When Tippy gave birth in Belfast Zoo the pups stayed below ground with her for two weeks and for the next fourteen weeks Blondie, Bertha and Daisy were babysat and taught how to forage by the other meerkats. Finally, when they reached 16 weeks old they were given a mentor meerkat who taught them everything they needed to know about meerkat life! At ten months the meerkats became fully grown adults, so moving to Fota Wildlife Park shouldn't have been stressful for the pups, as they are now over a year old.
When the pups are old enough they learn one of the most important jobs - sentinel duty. This is what keeps them from being someone else's dinner! Sentinel duty involves at least one meerkat acting as a standing guard. This guard picks a high spot and stands up on its back legs constantly checking the ground and the air for any predators. At the beginning of sentinel duty the guard will announce itself with a specialised call, so all the other meerkats know there is a lookout. A low, constant peeping is made when all is well. This is called the known as the watchman's song. If the guard spots an eagle, fox, jackal, or anything else that might be a threat, then it will give an alarm call and the entire group will dive into the burrows. There are different calls for land and airborne predators, so that the mob knows where the threat is coming from. So these clever little guys are very entertaining to watch, as they continually switch jobs, with each meerkat knowing what to do and when it needs to be done.
Luckily meerkats are not endangered, as the species is relatively widespread within southern Africa. However, it is not known whether the wild population is increasing or decreasing so it is important that we keep them in places like Fota to ensure they don't become endangered. It's an added bonus that they are extremely entertaining too and our meerkat family are looking forward to seeing you visit soon!