Welcome to Animal Magic – a series of fortnightly columns where we take an in-depth look at some of the popular and less well-known animal residents in Tilgate Nature Centre, Crawley.
This week we take a closer look at some of our most popular residents – meerkats.
Meerkats inhabit the deserts and savannahs of southern Africa, where they live in large family groups.
They spend the night in the safety of their burrows emerging in the morning for a day foraging and protecting their territory from rival clans.
Insects are the main part of their diet but they will eat lizards, scorpions and birds if they can catch them.
While most of the meerkats are looking for food, one or two will be on sentry duty looking out for predators.
When the sentry spots a potential predator it will make alarm calls to warn the other meerkats.
They are hunted by animals ranging from hawks and eagles to snakes and jackals, and they have different alarm calls for each of these threats.
So while they’ll all dive down their holes if an eagle is spotted, the whole group will gang up on a snake to drive it away.
In a group only the dominant pair will breed but the rest of the clan will take turns looking after the pups, with some sub-ordinate females even suckling them.
Up to six pups are born after an 11-week pregnancy.
Initially they are bald and their eyes are closed; by the time they are three weeks old they will start emerging from the burrows.
King and Queen of the desert
Our meerkat group is headed by Montgomery and Priscilla; they have bred regularly since their arrival last year with the latest pups being born on 2 July, so they should start appearing regularly in late July.
As they are such active animals they have big appetites so ours receive several small feeds a day, which include pellets, mice, beef, fruit, eggs and their favourite, insects.
Although the group work together most of the time they don’t like sharing food so will often tussle over a particularly tasty morsel.