Meerkats are really remarkable. They are small mammals that live in an extremely harsh environment. Their small shape means that they lose or gain heat very rapidly and being mammals this means that they must expend energy in maintaining their bod
y temperature and they must find behavioral ways in which to avoid excessive heat gain or heat loss.
They are sociable animals and they live in burrows. At night the temperature in these burrows does not drop as low as on the surface. Also the meerkat family in the burrow huddles together for warmth. During the day, when the temperature becomes too hot to continue foraging, they also return to the burrow for the shade and cool that it offers in the heat.
The fur of a meerkat is very thin and this allows for rapid loss of heat but it is not very effective at keeping them warm. So on cold mornings they erect their hair to create a thicker insulation layer and stand with their darker tummies facing the rising sun, in order to warm-up.
However, when the temperature rises their thin fur is an advantage. Before they have to retreat into their burrow in order to escape the heat, meerkats often find a shady spot or scratch away the surface sand to expose cooler sand and lie there to rapidly dump heat from their bodies. This allows them to remain out foraging for longer.
The most effective way for a plant or animal to cool them-self is through evaporative cooling. In mammals this takes the form of sweating or panting and meerkats do use this strategy to a limited extent . . . but they never drink water! In the next post I’ll talk about how meerkats obtain water from the harsh and often dry environment in which they live.