Ask Peter

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Lisa: Are meerkats found only in South Africa? Where else do they live? Peter Gros: You also find meerkats in south and southwest Africa, and they range farther north up into the Kalahari Desert.

Jessica: Meerkats seem really friendly in the special, but are they really that friendly?

Peter Gros: Well, they're friendly in the special because Mr. King has allowed himself to very slowly earn the trust of this family. I have seen meerkats in the wild while filming elephants in southwest Africa, and they are very leery, always keeping a watchful eye for predators, and generally in the wild state not that friendly. However, they are the most social of all mammals to each other. Some zoos have had to hand-raise meerkats, and they have become quite attached and used to people. They are incredibly social to each other, and they display that by play-wrestling, grooming, and constantly playing with each other, helping to establish a hierarchy, which is important later on in their lives as part of the family unit.

Jackie: How do meerkats differ from other members of the mongoose family?

Peter Gros: These are a little smaller. They're different in appearance by their spots and brown stripes. They feed primarily on worms and insects. They stay together in large family units. They are highly organized socially, and they all have an important role in their family's social structure, which their survival is dependent upon. Mongooses don't eat the same food. They will eat snakes and other small mammals, but they will sometimes share the same abandoned holes in the ground.

Bob: How can a meerkat attack a venomous snake like a cobra and survive?

Peter Gros: Meerkats tend to eat more insects than snakes, unlike mongoose that are very fast and are able to grasp a snake after it has struck the snake. However, meerkats will mob a snake in a large group, staying out of its reach, and drive it away. The snake will usually retreat to a bush or a hole in the ground. Meerkats have been known to be bitten by venomous snakes that would kill an average-sized human being, and the meerkats have survived. However, there are cases of meerkats not surviving snakebite. It is believed that meerkats have some immunity to venom, as in the scorpions that meerkats consume on a regular basis, and possibly some immunity to venom from snakes.

Meredith: How many meerkats make up a mob?

Peter Gros: I would say more than two. The mob can grow very quickly. In one season, a mob can double in size. In one season, a female may produce three litters of two to four. Eventually, a mob will outgrow its territory as its numbers grow, and have to move on to look for a new food source. Some mobs will split up, and alpha males in a mob are constantly marking their territory with a scent gland to keep intruding mobs from entering their territory.

Beverly: I watched the show and was wondering if the meerkats ever search for water?

Peter Gros: Good question! Considering they live in the desert, one would think that. But considering most of their food source consists of juicy insects, they derive their moisture from their food. However, during the rare rainy season, they will drink.

Starlit: How big can meerkat groups get?

Peter Gros: I would say 20-plus, but I'll just double check. A mob can get up to 40. In this group, there is always a dominant alpha male and a dominant alpha female, and they possess a very large vocabulary to communicate with their large families. They have a series of chirps, barks, moans and whistles, all of which have a meaning. One may mean there's a predator, or another meerkat nearby. There can be an alarm call, or one of excitement, and others are just playful sounds.

Shelly: Are meerkats nocturnal?

Peter Gros: No, they aren't. They sleep during the night, and then they're up with the sun after sleeping together in underground burrows in a group to stay warm. They come out with the morning sun. They stand facing the sunrise and use their chest's flat panel that acts as a solar panel to warm their bodies. They head off the rest of the day searching for and eating food, and then return before nightfall. When we were in the desert we were very aware of why they crawled into their dens, which was to stay warm. And they'd crawl into the dens to cool off during the day, too. We'd refer to the Kalahari as the "Shake and Bake." It was very hot during the day, and below freezing at night. We experienced that firsthand!

RO Spring: Do meerkats leave their home group to breed with others and spread their genes around?

Peter Gros: Generally, the alpha male's genes are spread throughout the group, and the other males may meet up with other meerkats from other groups and father offspring. After the young are born, the mother will leave at daybreak and go hunt for food until dark. She will assign one of the teenagers to baby-sit throughout the day. From four to six weeks, the pups will start to forage with their elders, getting nourishment from both milk and insects. At six to sixteen weeks, they'll start finding their own food, as well as being supplemented by their elders. Studies show that pups that make the loudest begging calls get the most from the elders. Each pup will be taken on by an adult meerkat, which will act as a mentor and take the responsibility to teach the pup the necessary skills for foraging for food, as well as responding to danger.

Falling: Hello! You know so much about meerkats! How did you learn about them?

Peter Gros: I read everything I can get my hands on, and I've learned more about meerkat behavior from Simon King's film than ever before. If you want to learn more about meerkats, there are some information sources listed at the Animal Planet Web site.

Amyh: Is the percentage of human-related meerkat deaths increasing or decreasing over the years?

Peter Gros: I don't know the answer to that question; however, meerkats are not an endangered or threatened species. That's the good news. The Kalahari is so vast, the climate so severe, and the hardships for human beings so immense, I think meerkats will continue to survive very well in the wild.

Mchick To You: Can you have a meerkat as a pet?

Peter Gros: I don't think meerkats, or any wild animal, would make a good pet. They appear to be very friendly as we see them up close in the wild, having no fear for Simon King, but like all wild animals, I don't think it would be fair to possess one as a personal pet.

Robin: What is the meerkats most dangerous predator?

Peter Gros: The most dangerous predator for meerkats are birds of prey — eagles, hawks and, occasionally, owls. This is why it's so important that they always have one meerkat standing watch, either on a high mound or in a tree, scanning the skies for birds of prey. Most of the time, when meerkats are scavenging for food, their heads are down in the dirt, and their eyes are underground in a hole as they dig for insects. So the guard animal, or sentry meerkat, has to be the lookout for the rest of the family while they're digging. Once a bird of prey is spotted nearby, an alarm call is made at the same time as the lookout meerkat leaps from its perch and heads for the nearest burrow. This is one of the reasons meerkats never stray too far from burrows or dens.

Brenda: Do meerkats stay together as a family unit, or do they break up when the males mature?

Peter Gros: They stay together until various ages of maturity, then some will break off to join other groups. They may stay with their original gang for up to three years before they venture out, and then they may leave in groups of two or three, or they may remain in the original group.

Sue: Does one gang of meerkats ever fight with other gangs?

Peter Gros: Yes. Intruding meerkats will be driven off from one gang's established territory. These territories are well marked by the alpha male by urine scenting to identify his territory.

Lorie: How is the mob now?

Peter Gros: The mob's numbers have doubled since the beginning of the show. The mob is doing fine! When Simon King last filmed them, they were doing well, and even Arnie has recovered from his snakebite.

Betsy: Do meerkat communities have to find other communities to breed?

Peter Gros: Some will stay and breed within their own community, but about three to four small groups of meerkats will go off to start their own mob, or join others. This is nature's way of assuring a healthy diversified gene pool. They will identify other meerkats by the smell, more than the sight, which is why they are constantly marking one another. For example, if a meerkat gets separated for some time and tries to re-join its gang, the gang may think it's an intruder and get in a mobbing defense stance until they identify a known meerkat. Once it is recognized, everything is fine.

Meerkat Love: Meerkats seem very vocal. Besides in defense, what other purpose do these vocalizations serve?

Peter Gros: These vocalizations are very important, not only to identify alarm and excitement, but to stay in communication with each other when they're out of sight. The constant sounds reassure them that there are no predators, that they're in close proximity, and that all is well. Sharp changes in sound, or lack of sound, may alert them for attention that a predator is nearby. They are also very social, and they will communicate to stay in touch. They not only communicate by sound, but by scent and body language, although they do have over 20 different sounds that have been recorded, all of which have different meanings. It is thought one sound could be to lead the group, given by the alpha male. And there's a pup feeding call, a guarding call and foraging calls. They are constantly communicating what sounds like a growling that helps to keep track of one another's location, which is important as they will forage up to 15 feet apart in the thick grasses. When the young are learning how to forage, they are very loud, and they can be heard up to 100 yards away. If they become separated from the adults, the volume of their cries increases so that an adult will come and get them. There are also numerous sounds that are used for simply grooming and play.

Sassy Max: Hi. I'm traveling to South Africa in six weeks. Can I see them?

Peter Gros: If you're going with a tour group, I would check with your guide in advance and request that's one of the animals you would particularly like to see. Conditions may vary, but your tour guide is your best source of information. I hope you do get to see them. Good luck!

Norman: Are ferrets related to meerkats?

Peter Gros: I'm going to have to look that up. We'll have to get back to you on that one. We'll post an answer at the Animal Planet discussion boards.

Corwin Fan: Why do meerkats always stand up on their hind legs?

Peter Gros: Meerkats have to be aware of predators constantly, and the higher they stand, the farther they can see. They're constantly looking for predators by standing up and scanning the immediate vicinity. When they walk or run on all fours, their head is only six inches above the ground. When they stand, their height is 12 inches, providing them with a much better vantage point to see danger. In order to attain an even better vantage point, they will climb trees and bushes. They seem to be excellent at climbing up trees, but a bit clumsy getting back down! Another reason they need to stand is that although their vision is good, depth perception does not appear to be as strong. You'll notice they bob their heads up and down when objects are close. This gives them different focal points. When facing a threat, they will stand, arch their bodies, and erect their tails to attempt to appear even larger. They will also stand and face the sun in the morning, so their chest acts as a solar panel to warm their bodies before they venture out looking for food.

Ittyat: Do meerkats show what we would think of as compassion for family members? I saw a meerkat putting his head on Arnie who was gravely ill.

Peter Gros: I believe so. Because they are such social animals, grooming can be a sign of affection, as well as removing ticks and other harmful insects. Often times, they will lie together in a huddle to keep each other warm, but I do believe these large, social family groups do show signs of concern for each other.

Dell Rosie: In terms of social structure, how do meerkats compare to, say, the primate social structures. Like chimpanzees?

Peter Gros: Quite similarly, although the chimpanzees are much more intelligent. They do seem to have a similar interdependence and necessary pecking order in their hierarchy, which helps the family unit to survive.

Lorie: Can they swim?

Peter Gros: Meerkats don't like the water. They will stay out of the rain and away from the water. However, after a rainfall the food is most abundant, so even though they don't like water in contact with them, life is good and food is plentiful after a downpour. The Kalahari Desert has very little rainfall. It's an arid climate with open plains. The average rainfall is 12 inches, which comes between January and early April. So there's little surface water, but quite a bit of moisture below the sand. It's a magnificent time to experience the rare beauty as the desert transforms into a lush carpet of plants, grasses and flowers.

Horsey Chick: Are there leaders in mobs?

Peter Gros: Yes there are. The leader is called the alpha male, and the female leader is called the alpha female. The alpha male is the dominant male of the gang. He's not necessarily the largest male, but he is usually the most aggressive. The alpha female of the gang will have all the other betas — other females — subservient to her. The beta males are the subservient males, and they are usually forced to leave the gang after three years. The subservient females will support the alpha meerkats. They are sometimes temporarily driven from the gang during the season when they may be ready to get pregnant. Then the beta females will leave the gang by three years of age and search for their own opportunities. The pups are meerkat babies 10 months or younger.

Star Falcon: When do members of the family leave to form their own family? Peter Gros: They leave at about three to four years to live with different gangs, or form together to create different gangs in order to increase their chances. However, meerkats that embark on this journey alone, or in groups of two or three, may face great danger, as they are at greatest risk when they are few in number. Sometimes meerkats will ally themselves with one another and take over another gang and get rid of the competitive alpha male, and perhaps the alpha female. Animal Planet: Thank you for this informative chat! Unfortunately, we are almost out of time. Do you have any parting words for us? Peter Gros: This is a one-of-a-kind show that both Mutual of Omaha and Animal Planet are most proud of. It's given me a heartfelt view into the lives of the most social mammal in Africa. Audiences of any ages, and parents alike, will appreciate the lessons learned as these curious, playful and mischievous meerkats survive the threats of the wild while working as a family and a team. A Production of LiveWorld. Copyright 2003. All Rights Reserved.

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