Written by: Robin Hoskyns
Whilst sorting out my Kalahari photos, I came across this sequence of images that I had forgotten about. Looking back, it was up there with the top wildlife experiences I had in the past year as a meerkat research assistant. I think it sums up a lot about meerkats and would definitely have been worthy of a ‘Meerkat Manor’ episode!
We had to wake up early, before sunrise, to be at the burrow of the meerkat group I was visiting before they got up and left for the day. Luckily the burrow wasn’t too far from the farm house and I knew the meerkats would be there because the dominant female had given birth the week before. Meerkats generally change burrows every few days depending on the group and the territory (probably as a way to reduce parasite load). As each group was only visited by a researcher for 3 to 4 days per week, if no one had been there the night before, then you would need to radio track the group which could sometimes mean a much longer morning!
Meerkat pups stay underground and don’t emerge for 2 to 3 weeks until their eyes have opened and they are able to react to their environment a little. They then stay at the same burrow for another week or two just exploring the burrow entrance and the surrounding few metres. During this time the group generally leave 1 to 3 individuals to babysit at the burrow. Babysitters can be any individual in the group, male or female, but generally the dominant female doesn’t babysit and will often leave the day after giving birth to forage with the group. Some subordinate females start to produce milk and suckle the pups even if they have never been pregnant themselves.
On this particular morning I arrived at the burrow and sat down to wait, and waited, and waited. I was starting to get a little worried that they had moved burrows, it could mean that the pups had died or been abandoned. After a while I ran back to the farmhouse (only 100 metres away) to get my tracking gear to check that the group were still at the burrow and sure enough I got a strong beep. This got me a little bit more worried as it would have been strange for the dominant male, who was wearing the radio collar, to have died overnight. I knew from the radio (we all had walkie-talkies to keep in contact) that all the other groups were up and had left long ago.
About 3 hours after the usual time for this group to be up (the time each group gets up is usually very predictable with some groups consistently being late risers), the sunrise had long gone and it was starting to get hot when I heard noises coming from the burrow. It was a kind of spitting call which would usually be made if a meerkat was startled suddenly, attacking a predator or fighting with a rival group. At least I knew I was in the right place and at least some meerkats were alive.
Suddenly the group emerged. Usually a group gets up casually one by one and they sit about at the entrance for a while to warm up before leaving but this time was different. It was a frenzy of meerkats coming up from different holes and popping back down again, digging and anal marking (whenever meerkats get really hyped up by anything, especially the dominant, they scent mark with their anal glands).
After about 10 minutes of this activity I spotted a slightly purplish lump in the middle of the frenzy. At first I thought it was dead but I saw it try to raise its head. In the next 20 minutes they brought up two more pups and then another two, five in total!
All the pups were alive but they were being trampled, covered in sand, picked up, dropped, forgotten about and then found again. The action was frantic but luckily I had my camera so I was snapping away trying to capture what was going on. At some point I noticed the dominant females leg was badly swollen and bleeding. Due to the swelling I predicted that it was a snake bite and sure enough when I managed to get a glimpse down the burrow I saw the head of a rather angry puff adder.
The group at that time had four juveniles which were almost sub-adults who were all obviously very exited by everything that was going on and kept trying to pick up the pups which they could only just lift, moving them a couple of metres and running back to the burrow. This carried on for quite some time. Eventually the dominant female picked up one of the pups and made for the next nearest burrow, probably about 300 metres away! She eventually managed to carry all five pups to the next burrow almost by herself with a now massively swollen front leg whilst hindered by the over-excited juveniles.
All the pups survived their ordeal and so did the dominant female. Meerkats are very resistant to snake and scorpion venom and there are multiple meerkats at the project that bear scars from snake bites, even on the head and face. Not all survive but many do. Later that week two of the males were captured for routine measurements and hormone samples and were found to have also been bitten however the dominant female must have taken the main hit of the snake’s venom.
It was amazing to witness the strength and determination of that dominant female and I’m glad I took my camera out that day!
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