Do You Know Your Mongoose from Your Meerkat?
What has 4 legs, a long tail and is often seen sitting upright surveying the lie of the land? A mongoose, or a meerkat? Despite their similarities, these two animals are quite different, let's see how.
The easiest way to tell whether you are looking at a mongoose or meerkat is your location. Meerkats are most commonly found in deserts or other semi-arid locations, scrublands and savannas. You could come across different kinds of mongooses almost anywhere during your South African safari.
Both of these mammals belong to the family herpestidae, which is made up of 34 species. Of these, 33 are different kinds of mongooses and Madagascan fossas.
There is only one meerkat, the sole member of the genus Suricata.
While all these animals are similar in looks and behaviour, the meerkat is singled out as the only insectivore in the family, as well as being the only species that is immune to scorpion venom.
The carnivorous mongoose's claim to fame is an immunity to neurotoxic snake venom. Mongooses can, and will, attack, kill and eat snakes.
It's in the Looks
Appearance-wise it is easy to tell these two kinds of animals apart if you were to see them side by side.
The mongoose has a bushier tail than the meerkat and a broader face. They occur in a range of colours, while meerkats are always fawn with lighter silver or grey highlights. Different types of mongooses have either black or white tips at the end of their tails, Meerkats always have a black-tipped tail.
The yellow mongoose is so similar in appearance to the meerkat that it is known as a rooi(red)meerkat in Afrikaans. Interestingly, although Afrikaans is largely derived from Dutch, in the Netherlands, the word 'meerkat' refers to a kind of tropical African monkey.
Mongooses occur in a wide range of sizes from the dwarf mongoose weighing just 270g to the white banded mongoose which reaches a top weight of 5kg. In general, meerkats tip the scales at about 725g.
Differences in Behaviour
With the exception of the Egyptian mongoose, all herpestida are highly sociable animals, living in large groups of up to 50 members. These populations are called 'clans', 'mobs' or 'gangs'.
Meerkats are diurnal, hunting during the day and returning to their burrows at night, while many mongooses are nocturnal animals.
Both these types of animals typically live in burrows and their young are raised by all their relatives, with a few babysitters remaining behind while the other adults forage for food. Meerkats often modify disused termite mounds for their own use.
Breeding is usually confined to the alpha pair in meerkats and they may kill any offspring not their own and evict the offending mothers.
In mongooses, the alpha male usually mates with all the females in the clan. Amazingly, all the mongoose mothers give birth at almost the same time.
Meerkat babies are allowed to leave the burrow at 2 to 3 weeks old, while mongoose pups stay inside until they are 6 weeks of age.
Find out More
Thanks to their amusing habits and appearance, both mongooses and meerkats have been immortalised in screen and print. Along with the gang from BBC's Meerkat Manor, Timon from the Lion King is a meerkat, while Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a mongoose.
Get in touch today to book your ringside seats and find out more about these interesting creatures.