Meerkats live in the deserts and grasslands of the southern tip of Africa. They are extremely cute, with bushy, brown-striped fur, a small, pointed face, and large eyes surrounded by dark patches. They average about 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, including their tail. These extremely social animals live together in burrows, which they dig with their long, sharp claws. Living underground keeps mob members safe from predators and out of the harsh African heat. These burrows can be 16 feet (5 meters) long and contain multiple entrances, tunnels, and rooms. A group will use up to five separate burrows at a time.
Meerkats only go outside during the daytime. Each morning, as the sun comes up, the mob emerges and begins looking for food. They use their keen sense of smell to locate their favorite foods, which include beetles, caterpillars, spiders, and scorpions. They'll also eat small reptiles, birds, eggs, fruit, and plants. Back at the burrow, several babysitters stay behind to watch over newborn pups. This duty rotates to different members of the mob, and a sitter will often go all day without food. The babysitters' main job is to protect pups from meerkats in rival mobs, who will kill the babies if they can. While the rest of the mob forages for food, one or more meerkats, called a sentry, will find a high point, like a termite mound, and perch on their back legs, scanning the sky and desert for predators like eagles, hawks, and jackals. A sentry who senses danger will let out a high-pitched squeal, sending the mob scrambling for cover.
Meerkats dig safe places called bolt-holes throughout their foraging area, where they can hide in an emergency. If caught in the open by a predator, a meerkat will try to look fierce, lying on its back and showing its teeth and claws. If a group is confronted, the meerkats will stand together, arching their backs, raising their hair, and hissing. This sometimes fools an attacker into thinking they are a single large, vicious animal. Meerkats are abundant throughout their range and are not considered threatened or endangered. But they live a very difficult life in the African desert, constantly threatened by hungry predators, rival meerkats, drought, and burrow-flooding rainstorms.