The Meerkat Database

What's It All About

Meerkats in brief
Meerkats are co-operative, desert dwelling mammals, members of the mongoose family (Suricata Suricatta). They live in family groups of up to 50 animals and are headed by a dominant female who leads the group and reserves breeding rights to herself normally, but not necessarily, with a long-term partner who also asserts dominance.

A fully grown adult is about 30cm tall when standing and they have evolved the ability to stand on their back legs to gain height which gives them a better view of their surroundings.

They are diurnal (night sleeping) animals who sleep underground in a complex series of burrows and also have a vast number of underground bolt holes all over their territory into which they can retreat in case of emergency.

Meerkats are at risk from birds of prey, jackals, hyenas and other predators. They may also be attacked by snakes. Their ability to gain as much height as possible and to be able to see oncoming predators is, therefore, of paramount importance.

Meerkat food invariably lives underground and meerkats are expert diggers. While the group is foraging for food one or more meerkats will keep watch and warn the others in case of danger. There have been over 40 different vocalisations recorded from sentries which tell the foragers whether it is safe, if there is a ground or air predator nearby or whether they should retreat underground to the nearest bolt hole in case of emergency.

Neighbouring groups will often interact and fight over territory particularly during periods when food is in short supply.

The Kalahari Meerkat Project
The project was started in 1993 by Prof. Tim Clutton-Brock of Cambridge University as a long term project to study breeding and survival success in meerkats. The study site is situated at the Karuman River Reserve near the Botswana border in South Africa where, on average, there are around 15 groups comprising a total of 300 meerkats being studied at any one time. There have so far been in excess of 60 scientific papers produced as a result of this research on many different aspects of these animals' lives.

Meerkats can be habituated. That is, they can be persuaded that humans are no threat to them and are safe to be ignored. Most of the groups in the study site are habituated and can, therefore, be studied closely without affecting their behaviour.

IDs and Naming
For research purposes each meerkat is assigned a unique ID code which comprises its birth group, sex and a unique identifier. As soon as a new born pup leaves the burrow at 3 weeks old, it is assigned the next ID by the observing researcher and dye marked for identification. In order for the researchers to be able to discuss the meerkats when not observing them, a name is also given. It is the right of the researcher to give each pup a name of his choice so meerkats may be named after characters in books and films, family members, well known actors and so on.

New Groups
Meerkats may leave their groups for various reasons either voluntarily or involuntarily. Individuals out of their groups will sometimes come together and form a new group. When a new group is formed, the entire team choose a name for that group.

Meerkats are a popular choice for wildlife film makers and the project allows filming on the reserve on the strict condition that the film makers do not interfere in the lives of the animals in any way. Many programmes have been made at the site featuring presenters such as David Attenborough and Nigel Marven. In 2004, Oxford Scientific Films began filming for a series of docusoap programmes for Animal Planet which eventually became titled 'Meerkat Manor'. This has proved to be highly successful and 4 series comprising 13 programmes per series have now been aired.

Meerkat Manor
The project recommended that the film crew follows a group that had been named 'Whiskers'. This was a large, well established and successful group which was fully habituated. The Meerkat Manor storylines are, therefore, centered around that group. The researchers assist in identifiying individuals and explaining the meerkats' behaviour.

The complexity of the meerkats' lives, the number of groups they may interact with over a period, the personalised names given to some of the meerkats and the timescales involved means that the makers have to edit the realities of these animals' lives to make a watchable entertainment programme.

Most days for the meerkats are the same; getting up, sunning, grooming and burrow maintenance, foraging, afternoon nap, more foraging and then bed. This would not make for good television so Meerkat Manor edits and compresses the timelines to be able to fill each 20 minute programme with activity. Whiskers are likely to encounter several different groups over a short period and to accurately cover all of these interactions would produce a difficult to follow storyline, so reality is simplified. Several different groups may be referred to by the same name and the narration puts some meerkats in the wrong groups to make a better storyline.

Some of the names that the meerkats are known by are unsuitable for broadcast. More suitable names are, therefore, used in the narration and, in order to make the storylines work, characters are sometimes invented and played by other meerkats. In some cases a character in the programme is played by more than one meerkat and some meerkats play more than one character.

This Database
This database contains information on the real meerkats at KMP. With the exception of Stage Names, which are given where known, it does not follow the storylines of Meerkat Manor.

Zaphod is the name given to the oldest and most famous of the meerkats currently at KMP and featured heavily in Meerkat Manor. His photograph was therefore chosen as the search icon within this database.

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