Earth Our Home Too : Meerkats

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Meerkat Classification and Evolution
The Meerkat (also known as the Suricate) is a small species of foraging mammal that is found inhabiting the harsh conditions of the open and arid, semi-desert plains in southern Africa. A member of the Mongoose family, Meerkats differ from the other 35 Mongoose species in a number of ways with the biggest difference being that Meerkats are incredibly sociable animals, where most Mongooses are not (only 3 other species are known to live in groups larger than pairs). There are three different sub-species of Meerkat that are found in varying geographic locations and although they are very similar in appearance, they differ slightly in their fur colouration and markings. All however, live in highly organised communities known as gangs or bands, that rely on one another for their survival in such hostile conditions as whilst the majority of the group is out foraging for food, others stand on guard to keep a watchful eye out for approaching predators.

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Meerkat Anatomy and Appearance
The Meerkat is a small sized mammal that has a long and slender body with a long and light but black-tipped tail that can almost double the animal’s total length. Meerkats are sandy to light brown in colour with eight darker stripes on their back, markings on their sides (which are unique to the individual) and a lighter face and underside. They have elongated muzzles with a black nose and dark coloured bands around their eyes. Meerkats have long, sharp claws on their front paws that are curved and can grow up to 2cm long and help them to both dig their burrows and to find small animals that are buried beneath the soft sand. The fur of the Meerkat has actually adapted remarkably to the differing desert conditions, not only helping to keep the animal cool during the boiling hot days, but also acting as a layer of insulation to keep it warm during the freezing-cold winter nights.

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Meerkat Distribution and Habitat
The Meerkat is found in southern and western Africa inhabiting the dry and hostile scrub-lands of the Kalahari Desert. Spanning across five different countries in southern Africa from Angola to South Africa, Meerkats are found throughout this vast, arid region foraging for food on the ground during the day and retiring into their immense burrows in the sand at night. Conditions in the Kalahari Desert are incredibly extreme with temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees Centigrade in the summer (with a sand temperature of 70 degrees), and falling to well below zero down to -10 degrees during the bitter, winter nights. This area of Africa has an incredibly low level of annual rainfall with only a rare, small amount falling generally between January and April and after which, the Kalahari briefly transforms into a well-vegetated and life-filled region before the cooler winter months set in.

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Meerkat Behaviour and Lifestyle
Unlike all but three other Mongoose species, the Meerkat is a highly sociable animal that inhabits territories in the desert in groups that usually contain between 10 and 30 individuals (although much larger bands are not uncommon in areas where there is an ample supply of food), and consist of three or four family units of a male and female pair, with their young. After emerging from their burrow to sunbathe in the early morning sun, the majority of the band goes off to forage for food while others either babysit the young, or act as guards. By standing upright on their hind legs and tails on the top of mounds and in bushes, Meerkat guards are able to have a good vantage point to watch out for approaching predators, particularly from the sky. One of a series of different alarm calls will then be sounded to alert the rest of the group what the danger is, often causing the whole band to dive into their underground burrow to hide.

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Meerkat Reproduction and Life Cycles
Although there may be a number of breeding pairs in one band, Meerkat society is generally dominated by one male and female pair. Young Meerkats are usually born in November after a gestation period that lasts for around 11 weeks. Having mated with her partner at the start of the summer, the female Meerkat gives birth to between 2 and 5 small kits in a grass-lined chamber in the burrow, that are born blind and without their full coat of fur. Unlike with the rearing of numerous other small mammal species, both females and males tend to their young with males and siblings known to help to teach the young Meerkats the skills of surviving in the surrounding desert. Whilst the majority of the band is out foraging for food, the young Meerkats never stray far from the den and whilst playing in the hot sand, are kept a watchful eye on by an appointed babysitter. Meerkats can live for up to 10 years in the wild but have been known to live for longer in captivity.

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Meerkat Diet and Prey
The Meerkat is a carnivorous animal which means that despite it’s small size, it only forages for and eats small animals in order to gain all of the nutrition (and most of the moisture) that is needs to survive. Like other Mongoose species, Meerkats have an excellent sense of smell which is used to sniff out potentialprey that is lurking just under the surface of the sand. Once detected, Meerkats then used their long and sharp front claws to dig out their prey, with the majority of their diet being made up of insects and other small invertebrates, along with also eating larger animals such as Lizards and Rodents. Due to the fact that Meerkats are small in size and have adapted to living in such a harsh environment, they must spend a great deal of their waking hours foraging for food as they are known to loose around 5% of their body-weight during the night and must therefore ensure that they have enough to eat every day.

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Meerkat Predators and Threats
Due to the small size of the Meerkat, they are natural prey to numerous animal species that are both on the ground and in the air. The biggest threat to Meerkats are Birds of Prey such as Hawks and Eagles that can spot these animals from high above their heads, along with ground-dwelling predators such as Snakes that hunt them on the ground. In order to try and protect themselves from being so vulnerable in their open and arid surroundings, Meerkats adopt the safety in numbers tactic and ensure that there is always an individual on guard to warn the rest of the group of any approaching danger. In places that are closer to growing Human settlements and near to areas where domestic animals are grazed, Meerkats have been known to contract both bovine diseases and rabies that can affect whole populations of these adaptable and otherwise resilient animals.

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Meerkat Interesting Facts and Features
If the individual Meerkat on guard spots approaching danger they will sound the alarm to the rest of the group. Meerkats are known to use a wide range of vocal calls to communicate between one another sounding long howls to warn the rest of the band of an approaching bird of prey, and using short double-barks to alert them of a predator nearing the group on the ground. The individual territory of a Meerkat group covers a large enough area to ensure that the band has everything they need to most successfully survive. This includes areas of both hard and soft sand as although the hard sand provides the perfect ground for building their tunnels in, it requires more energy for Meerkats to forage for food in it too. Digging in the softer sand requires less effort and therefore means that they can conserve more energy for other activities.

Meerkat Relationship with Humans
The Meerkat is one of those species that has always fascinated people with their characteristic behaviours having made them one of Africa’s most iconic small mammal species. The real delights into Meerkat life were displayed in the BBC series Meerkat Manor which involved the following and filming of one band of Meerkats in the Kalahari Desert. Although they are not threatened by Human activity as drastically as a number of Africa’s other unique species, Meerkats have been susceptible to contracting diseases from other animals which can have devastating implications on local populations.

Meerkat Conservation Status and Life Today
Today, the Meerkat is an animal that listed by the IUCN as being of Least Concern from being extinct in it’s natural environment in the near future. Although they are widespread and common throughout much of their natural range, populations in certain areas can be affected by the lack of rainfall or increasing numbers of their natural predators. Populations across southern Africa however, appear to be generally stable with large numbers of Meerkats also found in a few of the big national parks.


Courtesy  : a-z-animals.com, Will Burrad-Lucas (via Google), Wikipedia

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Food We Eat : 15 Rare Fruits! :)

Exotic Fruits 15

 

Ackee

In Jamaica, the ackee fruit is a mixed blessing. Though originally native to West Africa, it migrated to Jamaica in 1778 and is now the country’s national fruit. If improperly eaten, though, ackee can cause what has been dubbed the Jamaican Vomiting Sickness — which, other than the self-explanatory symptoms, can lead to coma or death. Unripe ackee fruit contains a poison called hypoglycin, so preparers must be careful to wait until the fruit’s protective pods turn red and open naturally. Once open, the only edible portion is the yellow arilli, which surround always-toxic black seeds. With all that risk comes a delicious payoff — Jamaica’s national dish is ackee with codfish. You have to commend the bravery of whoever first tried these strange-looking fruits. The ackee is sometimes called a “vegetable brain” because only the inner, brain-shaped, yellowish arils are edible. 

Rambutan

Native to the Malay Archipelago, the name of this fruit is derived from the Malay word meaning “hairy,” and you can see why. But once the hairy exterior of the rambutan is peeled away, the tender, fleshy, delicious fruit is revealed. Its taste is described as sweet and sour, much like a grape.

Physalis

These fruits encased in an unusual, lantern-like husk are part of the nightshade family and thus share a relation with the much more familiar tomato. Since it has a mild, refreshing acidity similar to the tomato, it can be used in many of the same ways. Imagine enjoying some pasta with fresh physalis sauce

Jabuticaba

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The jabuticaba fruit is unusual in that it appears to blossom right out of the bark and trunk of its tree. The tree may even look covered in purple warts or pimples when it is fully in season. It is often used in its native lands in South America much like grapes are used elsewhere. Jabuticaba wines and liqueurs are both popular and exquisite.

Africian Horned Cucumber

Cucumis metuliferus aka Kiwano, African Horned Cucumber Originated in semi arid Africa near the Kalahari desert. Thorny oval fruits are filled with green-gold gel and lots of seeds; very high in vitamin C. The flavor is reminiscent of pomegranate and citrus. The primary market niche is for garnishes and decorative fruits.

Durian 

Revered in Southeast Asia as the “king of fruits,”  This large fruit can be recognized by its thorn-covered husk and pungent odor, which has been likened to the smell of gym socks or rotten onions. That may not sound appetizing, but for those who enjoy it, it’s a thick slice of heaven. 

Miraclefruit

Native to West Africa, this berry got its name from its incredible ability to make sour fruits (like lemons and limes) taste sweet instead, when the juices are mixed together. It accomplishes this feat by utilizing a molecule called miraculin, which works by distorting the shape of sweetness receptors on the taste buds. Be careful, though, because although the miraclefruit can distort the taste of sour foods, it does not change the chemistry of the food. Thus, it could leave the stomach and mouth vulnerable to high acidity. 

Mangosteen

No, this isn’t some exotic variety of mango. Native to Indonesia, Mangosteen is sweet and tangy, juicy, and somewhat fibrous, with an inedible, reddish purple rind. The fragrant, edible flesh of the mangosteen can be described as sweet, tangy, citrusy and peachy. Naturally grown in tropical Southeast Asia, it has been so prized that Queen Victoria is said to have offered a reward of 100 pounds to anyone who could bring her a fresh one. The sweet meat of this fruit is, perhaps appropriate to the legend, well protected by its hard shell, which typically must be split with a knife and cracked open before it can be enjoyed.

Langsat

The plant, which originates from western Southeast Asia, bears edible fruit. It is the provincial flower for the Indonesian province of South Sumatra. The skin is thin and releases a white sap when cooked. The flesh is watery and tastes sweet and sour. Unlike duku, langsat fruit does not last long after being picked. Three days after being picked, the skin blackens; this does not affect the fruit’s taste.

Cherimoya

The cherimoya or Custard Apples is believed indigenous to the interandean valleys of Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia.  It is white, juicy and fleshy, with a soft custard-like texture and large seeds that look like beans. It is creamy and tastes like a combination of banana, pineapple and strawberry. The skin and seeds shouldn’t be eaten. Cherimoyas are like avocados in that they will ripen at room temperature right on your kitchen counter.

Aguaje fruit

The aguaje fruit is just another nutrient-rich, pulpy gem with the potential to gain as much popularity as the now familiar acai berry or guarana extract. Local people living within the Peruvian Pacaya-Samiria National Reservehave cultivated this fruit, and a variety of others, as part of their culture. The aguaje fruit ripens on a palm tree, and when it is ready to eat, one must peel back the maroon scales before munching on the crisp yellow flesh inside. Tasters have compared the aguaje fruit to a carrot.

Jack Fruit

Enormous and prickly on the outside, jackfruit looks somewhat like durian (though jackfruit is usually even larger). Once a jackfruit is cracked open, what you will find inside are pods or “bulbs”. Often referred to as the seeds, these bulbs are actually a kind of fleshy covering for the true seeds or pits, which are round and dark like chesnuts. The fleshy part (the “bulb”) can be eaten as is, or cut up and cooked. When unripe (green), it is remarkably similar in texture to chicken, making jackfruit an excellent vegetarian substitute for meat. In fact, canned jackfruit (in brine) is sometimes referred to as “vegetable meat”.

Monstera deliciosa

Native to the rain forests of Central America, monstera deliciosa looks more like an ear of corn than a fruit. To get to its pineapple-like flesh, the scaly exterior must be flaked off and delicately prepared. Interestingly, this fruit takes as long as a year to ripen and to be safe enough to eat — it can be toxic if unripe.  

Cupuacu

The fruit of the tree, which is called by the same name, has been a primary food source for natives in the rainforest for centuries and has a creamy, exotic pulp at the center of a large melon. The fruits are about the size of a medium-sized watermelon and become ripe from January to April, during the rainy season. These are gathered, split open, and the pulp is made into juice, ice cream, jam, tarts, smoothies and more. These are considered delicacies in many of the larger cities of South America, such as Rio

Pepino

The unusual, round fruits of the Melon pear are cream skinned with purple streaks. The deliciously sweet and juicy flesh has a taste and aroma similar to melon, and can be eaten in a similar way. Common throughout its native lands in South America, this fruit has been exported as far away as New Zealand and Turkey. It can bear fruit within four to six months of being planted and makes a resilient crop, so it’s a favorable option for farmers who know of it.