Meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are members of the mongoose family who can be found in the Southern Africa/Kalahari Desert. They have white bellies and dark markings around their eyes that act as "sunglasses" to protect their eyes from the sun. A group of meerkats is called a "mob" or a "gang," and they live in communal, grass-lined burrows. They are small animals, weighing less than two pounds with a body length of 10 to 14 inches.
The name "meerkat" came from the Dutch settlers. The Dutch "meerkat" and German "Meerkatze" refer to the guenon, a monkey of the Cercopithecus genus -- early settlers incorrectly believed that the meerkat, with its long tail and ability to stand upright, was a small type of monkey.
Meerkats live in sprawling underground tunnels, often taking over abandoned termite mounds or tunnels originally constructed by the Kalahari Sand Moccasin, a snake native to the region. As they are so small, meerkats must protect themselves from a variety of predators, and to do so have created a complex interdependent social structure. Both male and female meerkats hunt for food, while other male/female pairs stay behind and protect the young, weaving protective blankets from the grass that lines their burrows in which they cocoon the young meerkat pups. If the burrow is attacked by a snake, jackal, or enemy meerkat gang, the adult meerkats roll the ball-encased young out the back entrance of burrow, running along on their hind legs and pushing the pup-balls to safety.
Because of their long, nimble toes that resemble fingers, African tribesmen once called meerkats mishumaa saba, which means "little man with finger-hands." Meerkats are extremely dexterous, and can eat a variety of insects including scorpions, as they are immune to their venom. They also eat most desert beetles, and line their burrows with the shells for insulation. When a male meerkat hopes to mate with a female meerkat, he brings her gifts of beetle shells to decorate her burrow, in hopes of impressing her. Meerkats also use their hand-like paws to communicate with each other using a form of sign language.
Many animal lovers revere the meerkat, creating multi-million dollar displays for them at zoos and wildlife parks, and they were celebrated in the Discovery Channel TV show "Meerkat Manor" and the Disney movie The Lion King.