The fearless and adorable meerkat

Reader Brian sent me a link to a nice page on wild meerkats that has a great video of the animals climbing all over him a photographer after they got used to his presence. Brian’s comments are below:

A photographer working in Botswana has posted some photos and an intriguing video of meerkats. I think these meerkats might give squirrels a run for their money in the cuteness department.
Here’s the two-minute video. Do watch it unless you don’t like meerkats—and I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t. The babies (what are they called?) are especially adorable. The photographer, Will Burrard-Lucas, has his own page that’s well worth perusing.
In the video, the photographer notes that meerkats have learned that humans are not a threat. As you can see, they climb all over him and his gear. This seems curious to me because the number of meerkat-human interactions must be far lower than the number of squirrel-human interactions. In Toronto (and I am sure in Chicago), people feed squirrels regularly, and yet the squirrels are still very skittish. I once had one walk across my lap as I ate my lunch on the grounds of the University of Toronto, but he still seemed very nervous and I think the squirrel was simply trying to get my attention so that I would give him some food.
The photographer’s explanation that the meerkats are simply using him to gain a better vantage of the landscape is interesting. But, for an animal that seems to nervously retreat to its burrow with little provocation, this behaviour seems odd to me (but, I am librarian, not a biologist). In any case, I thought you might like to see this cute video.
Just in case you didn’t know, meerkats (Suricata suricatta) are carnivores in the family Herpestidae along with mongooses (mongeese?).  They are in fact mongooses for all practical purposes, and here’s their range:
Meerkat_Area.svg
More photos of Burrard-Lucas taking pictures. Now there’s a great job!
meerkats-1
meerkats-5
Meerkat on Camera
Meerkat butt!
Meerkat on Leg

87 Comments

  1. JBlilie
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Ben: What lens is that?!

  2. E.A. Blair
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    According to Wikipedia, young meeerkats are ‘pups’.

  3. JBlilie
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    EF 600mm f/4L ??

    • Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      Possibly, but it looks more like the 400 f/2.8 to me. Hard to tell with the lens coat.

      The details on this photo would seem to confirm that.

      It’s gotta be the latest version, or else he wouldn’t be so casually hand-holding it.

      b&

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Must be a 2.8 given the diameter of it. The 4s aren’t usually so large. It will be heavy too.

        • Posted May 6, 2014 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          There’s actually a single production lens with a larger front element than the 400 f/2.8, and that’s the 600 f/4.

          400mm / 2.8 = 143mm 600mm / 4 = 150mm

          The new 400 is heavy, but it’s shockingly light compared to previous generations of supertelephotos (and Nikon’s current generation). Especially combined with its best-in-existence image stabilization, you really can hand-hold it, and at slow shutter speeds. Of course, if it’s practical to use support, that makes life easier…but it’s not necessary.

          The new 600 is also lighter than anything else comparable, but it’s heavier still than the 400. Not a lot. I haven’t seen one in person, so I don’t know how bad it is. I imagine it’s something you can still hand-hold, but only for short stints.

          b&

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted May 6, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

            You could hold it but you’d never use your mangled hand again! 😀

            • Posted May 6, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

              That, or you could use it in place of barbells….

              b&

      • JBlilie
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

        Thanks Ben!

  4. Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    What I don’t see is why meerkats have Russian names and Russian accents, given that they come from Southern Africa.

    (Non-Brits may not understand this comment.)

    • merilee
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      I LOVE meerkats, and these are great photos!!
      I also have a very cute stuffed (plush)meerkat that I’ve kept, even though my kids are in their 20s.

    • merilee
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      please clarify re: Russian accents. Are they named Boris and Natasha or something??

      • Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        http://www.comparethemeerkat.com/

        • merilee
          Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          LOL!!

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted May 8, 2014 at 1:46 am | Permalink

            It’s a LOL the first time. It’s getting a bit wearing now. But as an advertising campaign it’s succeeded impressively in getting brand recognition. As successful as, say, the Smash Martians. I’m sure there are equally incomprehensible adverts in your country.

            • Merilee
              Posted May 8, 2014 at 6:05 am | Permalink

              I don’t watch much commercial TV, but there was a cute ad last year ( for what, I don’t remember) in which two accountantish guys are waiting to cross a busy street and somebody gallops by riding an ostrich. One guy says “What’s the chance of that happening?”, and the other guy replies, smugly, “100%.” The mathy in me smiled.

    • Sarah
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      As I recall, after the Great Mongoose War (or something like that) the desert meerkats emigrated to Russia, and that is why Aleksandr and Sergei are Russian. (Note to others: this is about a hilarious ad campaign on British television for a price comparison website. Google “compare the meerkat” to learn more.)

      • merilee
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        Hilarious ad!!!

    • Kieran
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Simples!

    • Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:19 am | Permalink

      Perhaps they are mirkats …

      /@

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 8, 2014 at 11:21 am | Permalink

        Oh my, I just now JUST got that! Nice one!

  5. Sarah
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of the plural of “mongoose”, there is a story about a zookeeper who wanted to order a pair of them, but was stumped about what to call more than one. He finally wrote to the supplier, “Please send me a mongoose. And while you’re at it, send me another.”

    • switchnode
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      The plural of “mongoose” is, of course, “polygoose”.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        Ha ha

  6. Coolred38
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I do love watching meerkats and it’s nice to see them in scale when standing on top of a human being when generally we are running along side them on the ground so it’s not really noticeable just how small they are.

  7. eric
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    This seems curious to me because the number of meerkat-human interactions must be far lower than the number of squirrel-human interactions

    Well, they’re different species for one thing. Different behavioral predilections is to be expected. IANAB but I expect that the fact that one is a carnivore and the other an herbivore could matter here; while a meerkat certainly isn’t at the top of the food chain, as a carnivore it is probably less naturally skittish and more naturally curious than a small herbivore, because in it’s ecosystem it may be higher up on the food chain.

    The sceond thing that occurs to me is that humans have and sometimes still do hunt squirrels. So while we mostly currently don’t, the proximity to humans who hunt them over the last several hundred squirrel generations may have impacted their genetic dispositions for behavior around humans.

    Just some blue-skying.

    • E.A. Blair
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      IANAB?

      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        I am not a

        Banana
        Beetle
        Belorussian
        Bigamist
        Biologist
        Botulism
        Bus driver…

        One of these probably makes sense.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

          I do favour the botulism choice. As if walking in on a Botox discussion.

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted May 6, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

          I’ll go with Botulism.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted May 8, 2014 at 1:49 am | Permalink

            This is a plan for your suicide? Or just a reflection on your level of culinary safety?

            • E.A. Blair
              Posted May 8, 2014 at 5:31 am | Permalink

              It’s what I wish on people who use cutesy internet fake acronyms and assholes like you.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted May 8, 2014 at 7:09 am | Permalink

              Maybe he just wants to look youthful!

      • eric
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        …a biologist

    • Posted May 6, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      While being a carnivore might help, my guess is it has more to do with the fact they have a complex social structure, and presumably greater capacity for interpreting others’ behaviour and judging intentions.

      (And IAAB! But my research is in plant genetics, so not much help really…)

      • Posted May 6, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

        *my guess is it has more to do with the fact they have a complex social structure*

        But is that completely independent of the other?

        /@

        >

  8. Taz
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I always loved this joke.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 12:42 am | Permalink

      And it’s right On Topic for this website. Well done!

  9. Posted May 6, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    On the timidity of squirrels compared to meerkats: I think the meerkats (predators, at least some of the time) are probably naturally more curious and less timid than squirrels (prey animals). Meerkats are comfortable on the ground and can easily retreat to a burrow, while tree squirrels are at a disadvantage on the ground and will retreat to a high place. Urban and suburban squirrels are often killed by dogs, sometimes with the human watching.

    Also, I don’t know if the meerkats would respond in this way to every human. The photographer is not attempting to follow, touch, or even look directly at them. His demeanor is gentle, his movements are relaxed, and he is sitting or lying down, making him look smaller and non-threatening.

    • lkr
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      Also, if the photographer’s butt is the highest point on this plain, the meerkat will use it for his lookout tower.

      …and baby meerkats are obviously meerkittens..

      • Merilee
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

        Meerkittens + 1

      • Posted May 6, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        Actually, one of my past cats was named “Meerkitten,” for two reasons. The first was that she often stood effortlessly on her hind legs to see something, displaying no problems with balance. The second was, that was how she meowed. I would turn to her and tell her, “Say ‘meer’,” and she would almost invariably respond, “meeeeer…”

        She also fetched, but her retrieval was sometimes weak, dropping her toy too far away for me to reach easily – though she herself would come all the way to my feet, anxious for me to throw it again (usually, this was the pulltab from a milk jug.)

  10. mcirvin14
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    The skittishness of squirrels has got to be in relation to their habituation to people – the squirrels in my neighborhood (in Chicago too) have a lot of human contact and gather a log of their sustenance from our gardens, trash, etc. But compared to, say, the squirrels in St James’s Park in London, there’s no comparison. I think the St James’s squirrels get much of their needs met directly from people, and people are always actively coaxing them for photos. As a result, they will run right up your leg. Washington Square Park in NYC has some pretty cheeky squirrels too.

    • Posted May 6, 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      York Museum Gardens, too. I’ve had them perch on my shoulder while I was eating lunch on a park bench.

      /@

      • Merilee
        Posted May 6, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Chipmunks can be awfully friendly, too.

        • Posted May 6, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          Chipmunks are ground squirrels, no? Seems kind of cruel to me…

          /@

          • Merilee
            Posted May 6, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

            Ground squirrels?? Huh?? Cruel how?

            • noncarborundum
              Posted May 6, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

              “Ground” squirrels. As opposed, say, to roasted whole squirrels.

              • Merilee
                Posted May 6, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

                Guess I’m slow today…

              • Merilee
                Posted May 6, 2014 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

                Not to be pedantic, but how are chipmunks ground squirrels. They climb trees and are totally different from so-called (intact) ground squirrels. If you ate the other kind of ground squirrel you ‘d go squirrelly with mad-squirrel disease:-(

              • Posted May 6, 2014 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

                😙

  11. Richard C.
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I like Paul Krugman too, but why do we have all these shots of him posing in Africa?

  12. aspidoscelis
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    “I think these meerkats might give squirrels a run for their money in the cuteness department.”

    Well, sure, but that’s setting the bar awfully low. 🙂

  13. onychomys
    Posted May 6, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Since we’re always on the lookout for books to read here, let me recommend Anne Rasa’s “Mongoose Watch”, which details her year of living with a mongoose troupe. Think Diane Fossey, except with adorable little viverrids. It’s well written, and is both educational and at times very moving. It looks like it’s out of print now, but amazon is selling some used copies starting at less than a buck. It’s well worth that price.

  14. Posted May 6, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    My understanding has been the meerkats far from human settlements almost never display a fear of people – we simply don’t fit the bill for their predators (raptors and hyenas/jackals,) so their protective responses never get triggered. The same is said about most penguin colonies.

    In some cases, animals respond less to appearance and more to behavior, which I’ve exploited a few times since stumbling on it – I’ve gotten significantly closer to deer and herons by mimicking their casual behavior, well after they were alerted to my presence. I imagine it’s amusing to see someone preening like a bird (or as close as a human can get,) but it worked surprisingly well. Many times when we spot wildlife, we behave exactly as predators do: stand motionless, stare, and sometimes creep closer. It’s not surprising that this sets off alarms.

    • Jim Sweeney
      Posted May 6, 2014 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

      One evening when I was backpacking in the Sierras, north of Yosemite, I was surrounded by deer while I was using my noisy Optimus stove to heat water for coffee. They’d gotten very close to me, then scattered when I turned off the stove and stopped its infernal hissing.

      I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the motion of my hand turning the valve that startled them; I sit pretty still, but not that still. It was the sudden cessation of an intrusive sound.

      Half a lifetime later I was getting into my car at twilight and noticed a deer eating the roses in my planter. It pretended not to see me until I turned to get a better look; then it bolted.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 12:57 am | Permalink

        I was walking across the rocks at the seaside one day (somewhere in NZ, can’t remember where) and I noticed several crabs maybe 4″ across scuttering out of sight as I approached. I tried sneaking up on them but there was no way I could get close. So I just sat down pretty still, and after about ten minutes a crab cautiously ventured out from the cracks in the rocks, till eventually it was right in the open. After we had observed each other for a few minutes I got bored so I just stood up – and the crab didn’t move. So I jumped up and down and waved my arms and yelled at it, and it still didn’t move. I’m not sure what the conclusion from that is.

      • darrelle
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 5:42 am | Permalink

        One day in the Colorado Rockies, near the Royal Gorge Bridge, my future wife and I came across an alpine meadow surrounded by trees. In the middle of it two large bucks with huge racks were having at it. Actually, they were both pretty much tired out and just standing there panting, head to head, with their antlers locked together. Scattered around the meadow and in the tree line was a large herd of deer. The largest I’ve ever seen.

        I spent about half an hour casually working my way in among the closest deer in the tree line. I was able to get within about 5 ft. (1.5 meters)of a young 4 pointer. That appeared to be the limit that he would allow. He seemed quite casual, nonchalantly eating tufts of some sort of grass, but if I made the slightest sign of further movement toward him, even just that subtle shifting of weight that begins the action of moving a foot forward, he would quickly look directly at me and stomp a front foot. For a half hour or so I stood there next to him among the rest of the herd.

        • E.A. Blair
          Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

          Consider yourself lucky you didn’t get one of those 4 points in your gut. They’re touchy during mating season. I nearly came out on the short end of an argument with a pissed-off ram, but I fended him off with my camera.

    • Diane G.
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      Gonna try that preening thing…

    • Thanny
      Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      Meerkats are indeed innately unafraid of humans, presumably because nothing that looks remotely like a human preys on meerkats. Same with penguins, many seals, and a host of other animals that live in habitats devoid of large predators.

      I actually find it annoying when someone claims that meerkats don’t fear humans only after becoming acclimated. There seems to be a dogma among many people (particularly those who see themselves as environmentally conscious) stipulating that animals must always be afraid of humans by default.

      Regarding deer, I’ve found a few things myself. They really care if you’re looking at them. I can walk pretty close to them if I watch where I’m going and ignore them. But if I turn and look, they’re likely to bolt. They also seem to find legs particularly important. I’ve driven on a garden tractor very close to deer, who just stared at me. When I got off, they bolted. Not as I was getting off, so it wasn’t merely motion startling them. After I was completely off and became something with legs instead of something larger with wheels (as car drivers in deer country know, deer don’t recognize cars as threats).

      • Merilee
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        My dog went nuts the first time she saw my son on roller blades. She wasn’t used to him moving that way. Also the first time she saw someone on snowshoes.

      • Diane G.
        Posted May 8, 2014 at 1:13 am | Permalink

        “as car drivers in deer country know, deer don’t recognize cars as threats”

        Indeed, quite the contrary. Car drivers recognize deer as threats.

        • Merilee
          Posted May 8, 2014 at 6:08 am | Permalink

          That’s why I’ve got those squealy things on the front of my car.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted May 8, 2014 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

            Tyres? 😉

            • Merilee
              Posted May 9, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

              No, I don’t ” burn rubber” too often:-). The devices I’m referring to are little black plastic thingies two of which you afix to your front bumper
              and when the car travels more than about 30 kmh the wind (theoretically) whistles through them and creates a high- pitched noise which keeps deer away. I say theoretically because, thankfully, the sound is out of human range ( d*g range, too, apparently). I know it sounds like one of those keeping elephants out of trees jokes, but people in deer country swear by ’em and they’re only about 5 bucks ( dollars, not male deer:).

          • Diane G.
            Posted May 9, 2014 at 12:48 am | Permalink

            Do they work?

            • Merilee
              Posted May 9, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

              They seem to ( haven’t hit any deer), but then I never hit any before putting them on, either…

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 9:48 am | Permalink

                I saw a deer the other day at the side of the road sitting pensively. I immediately slowed right down. You never know when another one will charge out of the bush & in front of or into the side of your car. Since I drive a little two seat roadster convertible in the summer I don’t want to get hoofs right in the face!

              • merilee
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

                My friend who lives in Sudbury got his car flipped right over when hitting a moose on the 400. He was taken to the hospital and while there thought about all the good moose meat he could BBQ. When he got back, mostly unharmed, though shaken up a bit, the entire moose was gone.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

                Moose will kill you! Remember, les animaux ne sont toujours sur les panneaux!

                I saw these signs all through Quebec when I was driving to the maritimes from Ontario.

              • Merilee
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

                I had to look up panneaux. Should have known that one…

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:27 am | Permalink

                Well, I’ve hit three, so I guess I’m the one to do the experiment.

              • merilee
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:40 am | Permalink

                It might be worth trying, Diane. You are supposed to remove them before going through a car wash, though I often forget, so have had a replace a couple.

              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

                Advice: Don’t use a car wash — their bad for the paintwork. Pressure washers too. There’s really no substitute for elbow grease.

                /@

              • Posted May 9, 2014 at 11:13 am | Permalink

                * they’re

                :-/

              • Merilee
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

                I only take my car to the carwash once or twice a year( if it needs it or not:-) so it’s not really an issue.

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

                @ Diana–in all probability that deer had already been hit and injured.

                Just last month I had to call 911 about a hit-&-run victim deer that was flailing mightily in a snowbank, trying to get up, having a front leg collapse under her each time. Somehow the saddest part was that she had a “friend” (doe) waiting for her nearby; that and knowing that she was just going to suffer and panic until she was killed.

                Last year there was a deer sitting beside the highway just like you said–lying there sort of like a dog. Same thing. I passed her twice at a long interval–no-one had yet intervened.

                In addition to the car-strikes I also see more than my share of hunter-wounded but not-dead-yet deer. You really can’t think about these things too much or your whole day (and more) is ruined. I know; it’s worse for the deer; but compassion can really do a number on me.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted May 9, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

                Oh believe me it hadn’t been hit. This road winds through a country area and there are always deer standing around there. It sprung off down a hill near the river!

              • Diane G.
                Posted May 10, 2014 at 1:08 am | Permalink

                “Oh believe me it hadn’t been hit. This road winds through a country area and there are always deer standing around there. It sprung off down a hill near the river!”

                Phew!

  15. BillyJoe
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Jerry,

    Stephen Fry disagrees with your assessment of meerkats:

    http://www.comedy.co.uk/guide/tv/qi/episodes/11/3/

    “Meerkat cross roads by sending out the least important members of the family, the children, first to see if the road is clear. If it is, the rest will walk across. If not and the child meerkat is run over they wait. Meerkats are fierce animals. Rival families kill each others children. People buy meerkats as pets but they are often abandoned because they are smelly, aggressive and attack strangers”

    But you can get your revenge on the meerkat:

    “Meerkats know each other by their individual calls and you can send one insane by placing recording devices of one particular call all over the place to confuse them”

  16. John H
    Posted May 7, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Baby meerkats are mere-kits.

    The plural of mongoose is mongeese, obviously.

    The squirrels in Regents Park run up your trousers. They have horrible, nasty little claws and you need to be very careful exactly what nuts they are after.

    Of course these are the hideous grey things imported from the US, not the beautiful indigenous red ones.

  17. merilee
    Posted May 9, 2014 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    breaking news…round meerkats;-)
    http://www.rollinwild.com/clips.php

  18. merilee
    Posted May 10, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Anyone seen Meerkat Manor?

    http://www.zip.ca/Browse/Title.aspx?f=titleId(189444)

    I haven’t yet, but a friend says it’s terrific. The link above is to the prequel and there are apparently 2 seasons!


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