Episode 168 – Meerkat: A Mongoose Most Foul

“…and today we’re talking about a mongoose most foul. But more on that later.” 

The savannah is a brutal place for the animals that call it home. Between lions, leopards, and hyenas, many of the mammals that populate Africa’s jungles and plains are built with sharp claws and powerful jaws. But when it comes to violence against an animal’s own kind, researchers have found that these big fearsome predators aren’t the most murderous. Instead, a small, unassuming species of mongoose accept this grim accolade. But what makes the meerkat so deadly? It’s a fact that shows that nature is sometimes cruel in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.


  • Adorable little weasels
  • Elongated bodies with long arms and haunches
  • Little hands with dextrous fingers and sharp claws for gripping things
  • Their tails are long with black tips
  • They’re covered in sandy brown fur with dark brown bands across the back and in circles around the eyes
  • They have standard mousey faces like other mongooses with tiny round ears and black pointed noses

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t have a new Measure Up intro this week.

  1. Meerkat
  2. Egyptian Mongoose
  3. Mountain Weasel
  4. Common Ferret

Head and body length

  • 24–35 cm (9.4–13.8 in)
  • How many meerkat lengths would it take to reach the surface of the underground lake in Namibia’s Dragon’s Breath Cave from above ground? 
  • Hint: The lake is said to be the largest non-subglacial underground lake in the world. It’s thought to be around 100m deep but it’s total depth is unknown. 
  • 285 meerkats. The lake is in a cave around 100m below ground level.


  • 0.62 and 0.97 kg (1.4 and 2.1 lb)
  • How many meerkats would a bat-eared fox have to eat to eat it’s weight in meerkats? 
  • Hint: A bat-eared fox is a typical meerkat predator along with other canids on the African savannah. These foxes have a hilarious ear to head ratio which is thought to help with thermoregulation like elephant ears.
  • 5.4 meerkats. A bat-eared fox is around 5.3 kg.

Fast Facts

  • Range: Timone lives exclusively in the southwestern tip of Africa – specifically South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. Their habitat is the wide-open spaces of the African desert where they can dig burrows and see danger coming from a mile away.
  • Diet: They mostly eat insects, but they’ll also eat frogs, spiders, lizards, birds, and scorpions. They’re actually immune to scorpion venom. They’ll also eat certain plants and seeds.
  • Behavior:
  • It can actually thermoregulate. Despite being warm-blooded, which usually means that your body temperature stays the same regardless of outside temperatures, the meerkat can change its body temperature depending on whether it’s hot or cold outside. This helps it conserve water and change its metabolism so it can survive more easily in the desert.
    • Timone also sunbathes in the winter
  • They also have a unique call if they spy danger from above (like an eagle) or danger on the ground. One if by land, two if by hawk.
    • They really have 12 different types of alarm vocalizations
  • Their burrows have “boltholes” for a fast getaway if danger comes a-knockin

Major Fact: Murder Among the Meerkats

With sensational news stories about slayings and the popularity of true crime podcasts, murder may seem like a common human conundrum. But is murder unique among humans when comapared to animals and other mammals?

The answer is both yes and no. But first its important to define what is meant by murder. In the animal kingdom, killing and fighting are common. Predators have to kill to eat and some animals fight members of their own species for territory, mating rights, and dominance. But, according to a 2016 study, violence that leads to killing members of your own species is pretty rare. The study looked at 1000 mammal species and less than half kill members of their own species. 

Primates do seem to have a propensity for murder. But human beings don’t make the top 30 mammals that are likely to kill their own kind. Number 30 is brown bears. Some big cats and canines make the list, but the number one most likely mammal to murder it’s fellows is a meerkat. In fact, almost 20 percent of meerkats die at the paws of another meerkat. 

To put that in perspective, if you combined all communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional disorder causes of death among humans, it would equal murder as a cause of death for meerkats. 

So why do meerkats kill each other? 

Mongoose Hierarchy and Bloodlines

Meerkats are eusocial and have a complex hierarchy, a fact that was popularized by the show meerkat manor. Like other highly social and hierarchical animal species there is often conflict when it comes to maintaining power. Lions, horses, zebras, and primates, all maintain these kinds of hierarchies in their groups and they all have representation on the list of murderous animals. 

Meerkats also have fierce battles with other groups of meerkats that sometimes result in fatalities. Unlike humans, females are often the most aggressive. Females that grow the fastest tend to gain status as dominant members of their society. When a strong female rises to power, she’ll try to prevent a rival from gaining dynastic foothold through infanticide. Females can give birth to up to eight individuals, so every time another female goes on a rampage it adds up.

Males tend to use different tactics. They mark their territories extensively to send a message that they are in control. They may even drive away other males and take over packs to assert their dominance. 

It’s not just dominant females that kill. Lower level members of society may try to ensure better positions for their offspring by killing off their classmates. “Hey Mom, I haven’t seen Suzy at school.” “Well, I had to do something. She had a much better GPA than you!”

Ending: So stay vigilant, trust in your family members, but sleep with one eye open, gripping your pillow tight, like the meerkat here in LDT.