Meerkats – one of Africa’s most well-known small mammals. Found in the Kalahari Desert of Botswana, Namibia’s Namib Desert and in arid savannas across parts of South Africa – the meerkat is a specialized member of the mongoose family that thrives in these harsh desert environments.
The original name meerkat – originated from the Dutch term meaning “lake cat” though they are not cats at all, today the local Afrikaan term “meirkat” has come to mean “termite mongoose” – a much more fitting nickname for these highly active desert predators.
With a body that is long and slender, not bushy like many mongoose species, meerkats have thin tails that taper to a dark colored tip. A meerkat’s body measures 10 to 14 inches and their tails are almost as long as their body giving them a total length of around 19 to 20 inches.
They possess gray and brown colored coats of fur with only small amounts of hair on their undersides. They have dark horizontal bands across their backs and their faces are marked with dark patches around their eyes, which help protect their eyes from the glare of the sun.
When meerkats are born they have a pink nose and as they age it will turn darker brown or black – but a female meerkat’s nose will always retain a touch of the pink color.
Unlike most mongoose species that have more pointed ears – meerkats have round ears that they are able to close shut when digging and burrowing to help keep dirt and dust out.
Meerkats are active carnivores, with a pointed snout and sharp claws that helps them to seek and catch prey from narrow trenches. With an excellent sense of smell, meerkats can locate much of their diet hiding underground. Primarily insectivors, their preferred food consists of small eat insects, such as grubs and termites, but they will also eat other animals like scorpions, spiders, lizards, birds, eggs and some fruit and other plant matter.
It is often thought that meerkats are immune to scorpion venom, however this is a bit misleading. While they do possess some immunity to the venom – if stung by certain deadly species – like a cape scorpion the meerkat may still die. However, meerkats have developed a technique for handling scorpions they commonly eat.
When a meerkat stalks a scorpion, it moves in quickly for the kill. First, the meerkat grabs the tail, biting off the scorpion’s stinger and discarding it. Without its tail, the scorpion is unable to inject the venom. Even with its stinger removed however, there may still be venom on its exoskeleton.
To combat this, meerkats have learned to brush off any remaining traces in the sand after removing the stinger. Meerkats are known to use this technique of dusting off the venom with the giant millipede as well.
Observation of meerkats has shown that adults teach pups this important hunting technique, often in various stages as they grow to adulthood.
Meerkats recieve much of their hydration from the animals they eat but meerkats are known to dig up plant roots for water in their otherwise hot and dry desert habitats.
To escape the heat of the desert, meerkats live in burrows. Though they are excellent diggers, they often take over burrows dug by other animals such as ground squirrels and even abandoned termite mounds. These meerkat homes may have more than 15 entrance and exits holes with tunnels and chambers as deep as 6 and half feet. These subterranean living quarters provide consistent and comfortable temperature – year round, day or night.
Meerkats are active during the daylight hours – most of their time is spent foraging, basking in the sun and grooming. Their daily activities are usually triggered by the amount of sunlight available which warms the top of the burrow and acts as a type of alarm clock. On certain overcast days, meerkats may spend the majority of the day underground.
Meerkats are highly social animals and one of the most cooperative mammal species. A group of meerkats is known as a mob, clan or gang. As many as 50 animals may make up a meerkat mob who will often inhabit as many as 5 different burrows at one time. Typical mob sizes range from 15 to 30 individuals who are led by breeding pair and most notably a dominant female. During the day other meerkats take turns watching after meerkat pups in the burrow while the parents seek food outside the home.
While the rest of the mob forages for food, at least one of the meerkats – called a sentry will find a high point, like a termite mound, and perch on its back legs. From here it keeps a look out for possible predators. If this lookout sentry senses danger it will let out an alarm call, sending the mob scrambling for cover.
Researchers have discovered that the type of sound given depends on circumstances, and even if the possible predator is aerial, such as an eagle they can spot up to …. or a ground based threat like a snake or jackal. Meerkats make between 9 and 14 different vocalizations for ommunication and a 2011 study showed that meerkats can distinguish between the calls of different members of their mob.
Like other mongoose species, meerkats have been known to kill venomous snakes. Working as a group, they will simultaneously attack and bite the snake – this cooperation among the mobs allow them to chase off many solitary predators much larger than the meerkat.
Meerkats are highly territorial among their family groups. They have scent pouches below their tails and rub these pouches on rocks and plants to mark their territory. The territories of different mobs often overlap, resulting in conflicts that can turn violent.
As a defense, often these conflicts begin with aggressive posturing and bluffing as each group tries to intimidate the other by lining up across a field and, at the right moment, charge forward with leaps and bounds, holding their tail rigid and straight up in the air. They will arch their back and thrust their rear legs backward. In many cases one group may win the stand off simply from displays and little physical contact however, meerkats are known as vicious fighters and they will often kill each other in these skirmishes.
However despite the dangers of predators and even attacks with other meerkats, their system of sentry lookouts, the immunity to some snake and scorpion venom and their incredible cooperative ability to hunt and defend themselves, meerkats will live up to 10 years in their native habitats while many in managed care at accredited zoological facilities can live nearly twice as long.
African Painted Dogs
Native to Africa and not found in the wild anywhere else on the planet, the beautiful and uniquely marked African Painted Dog is one of the world’s most endangered mammals.
The largest populations remain in southern Africa and the southern part of East Africa in Zimbabwe, Tanzania and northern Mozambique. It is estimated that fewer than 7,000 of these fascinating canines exists in the wild today.
African Painted Dogs are also known as African Wild Dogs and Cape Hunting Dogs – its scientific name means “painted wolf” – a reference to the irregular colored coat that features patches of red, black, brown, white and yellow fur. Each individual possesses a unique pattern.
With their distincive coats, Painted Dogs are sometimes confused with Hyenas. While the Hyena is a species of its own, most closely related to cats – the African Painted Dog is indeed a canine, related to other species such as jackals, wolves, coyotes and even domestic dogs.
Unlike most dogs however, African Painted Dogs only have four toes on each foot – dogs typically have five toes on their forefeet.
These long-legged animals are capable of incredible speeds and high stamina. African Painted Dogs can sprint more than 44 miles per hour. This speed is neccessary when hunting their primary prey on the African plains – gazelles and impala.
They are incredibly social animals with a focus on the family group. These wild dogs gather in packs of around ten individuals, but some packs number more than 40. Each pack is ruled by an ‘alpha’ breeding pair, with the female considered the dominant animal. This alpha female chooses where her pack will build their den.
With a gestation of about 70 days, usually only the alpha female carries a litter producing 10-11 pups. The females will often give birth in underground dens abandoned by aardvarks.
The pups are weaned around five weeks of age and become fully-fledged pack hunters by the time they are 1 year old. Same-sex siblings from one pack will eventually leave to join up with the opposite same-sex siblings of another pack to form a new family group of their own.
With very strong family bonds, African Painted Dogs spend most of their time together. As a group, they collectively take care of the pups with subordinate female dogs acting as pup-sitters for the alpha female mother within the pack.
If a member of the pack becomes ill or injured, the dogs will care and tend to them and they have even been observed mourning lost family members.
Though related to domestic dogs, African Painted Dogs are certainly wild animals and are considered very dangerous predators. They make excellent use of their cooperative hunting skills.
They tend to prey upon medium sized antelope species such as kudu, impala and various gazelles but they have been seen taking on buffalo, wildebeest and even giraffe – though kills of these larger animals are rare. The success rate of the African Painted Dog hunts are said to be between 70 and 90% – one of the continents most successful hunters.
A hunt typically begins at sunrise or sunset when the dogs first perform an elaborate greeting ceremony, sniffing and licking each other, wagging their tails and twittering aloud. During the hunt itself, however, the dogs are silent.
The whole pack shares in the feast, maturing pups who are present at the kill are often allowed to feed first but those animals not present are not left out. The dogs returning from the hunt will regurgitate bits of meat for the pups and the nursing mother who may have stayed behind in the den. African Painted Dogs hunt every day as they require more food, relative to their size than a lion. An average adult Painted Dog consumes about 9 pounds of animal carcass per day.
African Painted Dogs don’t stick to one territory when hunting either, their range may be between 80 and 800 square miles. They have been known to travel more than 30 miles a day for food, hunting mostly at dawn and dusk to avoid lions and other predators.
African Painted Dogs may live to be about 10 years old but as one of the world’s most endangered mammals, they face the very real threat of extinction. Their numbers continue to decline because of viral diseases like rabies and distemper, along with competition with large predators like lions, conflicts with humans, and habitat fragmentation.
Currently the African Painted Dog is one of the species currently part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan – a program focused on the sustainable ongoing population of many of the world’s most endangered or threatened species.
Towering above all the amazing wildlife in Africa is the tallest animal on Earth. This long-necked and popular creature of the animal world needs no introduction. It has captured the human imagination through the ages. The national animal of Tanzania and considered to be protected royalty in the country of Botswana – this icon of the animal kingdom is of course, the Giraffe.
Reaching average heights of more than 17 feet and weighing up to 2600 pounds, the uniquely patterned Giraffe is not only the tallest animal in the world but it is also the largest ruminant – that is, an animal that partly digests its food, then regurgitates it to chew the ‘cud.’ Giraffe are even-toed ungulates (or hoofed animals) like Hippos, Buffalos, Cattle and its closest relative – the Okapi. A Giraffe’s foot may grow up to 12 inches in diamater and the underside of the its belly may be 6 feet off the ground when standing.
Some of the largest male Giraffes ever recorded – both in the wild and in managed care have stood over 19 feet tall.
Giraffes are herbivores – predominantly browsers eating mainly leaves and buds on trees and shrubs.
Due to the length of their neck – which actually doesn’t allow them to reach the ground – they eat very little grass and in order to drink they must first splay their front legs out to the side.
Despite their size, however, Giraffes do not require large amounts of drinking water since they absorb much of their moisture from the plants they consume – primarily the Acacia leaves. They can eat between 70 and 80 pounds of food a day.
Many of the plants that Giraffes eat, including the Acacia, are covered in thorns. While Giraffes have no teeth in the top of their jaw, they do possess a bluish-purple or black tinted tongue that measures over a foot and a half long. This long, prehensile tongue allows them to wrap around branches and pull of the nutritious leaves.
Their highly flexible tongue is thickly covered to help protect it from the thorns and a thick saliva is believed to also aid in protecting both their tongue and throat.
The dark coloring of their tongue may also aid in preventing sunburn, since Giraffe feed much of the daytime hours with their tongue exposed.
Giraffes are typically awake for more than 20 hours a day, traveling and feeding. When resting – Giraffes may actually only enter a deep sleep for less than 20 minutes at a time. This period is usually seen when they may sit or lie down with their legs under their body and their head resting back on their rump. This is a vulnerable position for the Giraffe and they only remain in the position for very short periods of time – often no more than 5 minutes.
A giraffe’s heart, which can weigh over 24 pounds – the largest of any land mammal. This huge organ is needed to generate almost double the normal blood pressure of other mammals in order to maintain blood flow to the brain against gravity up the animal’s long neck.
In the Giraffe’s upper neck, they possess a complex pressure-regulation system of valves that prevent excess blood flow to the brain, when the giraffe lowers its head to drink. Conversely, the blood vessels in the lower legs are under great pressure (because of the weight of fluid pressing down on them) but a Giraffe’s legs have a very tight sheath of thick skin which maintains high extra-vascular pressure. Interestingly, NASA has done research on the blood vessels in giraffe legs to get inspiration for human space suits.
Giraffes walk similar to a camel by alternating the two right side legs, then the two left side legs, but when galloping they shift to alternating the front pair and the hind pair. Giraffes are also capable of running up to 30 miles per hour for sustained periods. In fact, the word ‘giraffe’ is believed to come from the Arab word ‘zarafa’, which means ‘fast walker’.
A Giraffe’s legs also serve as a form of defense, they can pack a powerful kick. A giraffe can kill a lion with a blow to the head or by breaking their back with a kick from their long, powerful legs.
Located on the top of the Giraffe’s head between the ears are what many call horns. However, they are actually known as ossicones and are found on both males and females. Ossicones are formed from ossified cartliage and are covered in skin. Giraffes are born with ossicones, but they lie flat and are not attached to the skull, helping to avoid injury during birth. As the animal ages, the ossicones will fuse with the skull over time.
Ossicones on males are generally bald in part due to the behavior known as necking. Necking is a fighting behavior that helps most males, known as bulls, establish dominance. The bulls will repeatedly swing their necks to deliver powerful head-butts to the each other’s body and underbelly. Injuries can occur during these sparring matches and in rare instances one animal may be knocked unconscious or even die.
Traditionally Giraffe have been considered a single species with 9 subspecies – and currently the IUCN Red List still tracks the species in this general classification.
However, a study conducted in partnership with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation that completed the first-ever comprehensive DNA sampling and analysis of all major natural populations of Giraffe throughout their range in Africa has revealed that there are 4 distinct species of Giraffe and 5 subspecies.
The 4 distinct species are the Masai, the Northern, the Reticulated and the Southern Giraffe.
The Rothschild Giraffe is genetically identical to the Nubian Giraffe which is one of the Northern Giraffe subspecies.
The other subspecies include the Northern West African, as well as the Angolan and South African Giraffes which are both Southern subspecies.
A common way to identify the various species of Giraffe is by their colored skin patterns. While each individual has its own unique design, each species possesses similar traits in shape, edging, and coloration.
West African and Kordofan Giraffes have light or pale patterns while the Nubian patches are large and chestnut-brown. Each of these Northern Giraffe subspecies have no markings on their lower legs.
The South African giraffe has star-shaped patches in various shades of brown, surrounded by a light tan colour. Their lower legs are randomly speckled with uneven spots.
The Angolan Giraffe is light in color and in some areas of Namibia, this species can be found almost colorless.
The Reticulated Giraffe may be the pattern most people think of with it’s rich orange brown patches that are clearly defined by striking white lines. This pattern continues the entire length of their legs.
The Masai giraffe is often noticeably darker than other species. Its patches are large, dark brown and distinctively vine leaf-shaped with jagged edges. The patches are surrounded by a creamy-brown color that continues down their legs.
Currently all Giraffes are classified as threatened but the Reticulated Giraffe is listed as Endangered while the Northern Subspecies Nubian and Kordofan are Criticially Endangered.
In some populations, over 50% of all Giraffe calves do not survive their first year and currently Giraffe are already extinct in at least seven countries in Africa.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
For original wildlife artwork and more amazing animal facts visit: