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The Meerkat - Sun Angel of Africa

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Meerkat – if any species of animal had a right to be a little irritated by the name we have gifted them, this is one. Of course, they are blithely unaware of any names we might choose to call them, but this small mammal from the heart of Africa is anything but a mere cat.

There are many interesting facts about meerkats but first of all it has to be pointed out that the meerkat is not any form of cat, even though you could be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of distant relative. In fact the word comes from Afrikaans (via Dutch) and the animal was given the name because of a misidentification. 'Kat' is indeed Dutch for cat and the word ‘meer’ means lake. Misidentification is perhaps an understatement here. As we have already established the meerkat is no cat – and furthermore it is not attracted to lakes in any way, shape or form. That doesn’t mean to say, of course, that the odd mud spa is not welcome.

So far and, well, not so good. There is a further possibility for where the meerkat got its name. It has been suggested that when meerkats were first encountered by the Dutch East India Company there may well have been an Indian sailor on board the ship. So, perhaps the Sanskrit word for monkey – markata – is where the meerkat got its name. Just to complicate matters, there is an alternative name for the species – the Suricate. This is from the Dutch ‘stockstaartje’ which means ‘little stick tail’. Altogether a more appropriate name but one which is largely confined to Afrikaans speakers.

Europeans – certainly in terms of Africa – are very recent visitors and a popular belief in the Zimbabwe and Zambian regions is that the meerkat is a sun angel. These angels are sent to villages by the gods to protect them from the moon devil – or even werewolves. When cattle stray or tribes people are separated from the rest of the community then it is said the meerkat will protect them. It must be hard work – this little guy is tuckered out.

The meerkat is in fact a mongoose. The mongoose family consists of around thirty species spread over the mainland of Africa and southern Eurasia. And – sigh – no, there is no connection whatsoever to geese! The word mongoose comes from an Indian language called Marathi and their word ‘mangus’ is pronounced in the same way we spell it. The meerkat is a diurnal species – and what that means is that it is active in the day time and sleeps at night – the opposite would of course be nocturnal. It isn’t a very heavy animal. The males are heavier at about 730 grams and the females generally weigh around ten grams less.

It is, however, a long and slender beast which means that the body length can be up to fourteen inches in length. When you add the ‘little stick tail’, which isn’t so little, that can be up to ten inches more. The tail, though, is pretty stick like. All the other mongoose species have bushy tails but the mongoose has a long thin one which tapers down to a tip, often of a reddish color. Perhaps the lack of bushiness is due to the dry and dusty areas it inhabits but, whatever the cause, it uses the tail to help balance itself when standing up. This is when the meerkat begins to look rather more human than it really is. Even when seated and at rest we are likely to endow the animal with more human characteristics than it really has.

It is the face which often attracts the onlooker. Meerkats always have black patches around the eyes, which to the us makes the meerkat seem more human. The patches are, in fact, to help deflect the strong glare of the African sun. Likewise its ears are black and are crescent shaped. When the meerkat digs – as is its wont – then the meerkat is able to close its ears to keep out the sand. The meerkat – like the moggy in one respect at least – has binocular vision. This means that it uses both eyes together. Even together.

Yet before we get carried away with this cute fest, let’s remember where the meerkat comes from. There are plenty of predators more than willing to make a snack out of a meerkat and so they do come equipped with a fine set of teeth. When protecting their clan or their home the meerkat will not be launching in to a rendition of hakuna matata any time soon. Dig?

Talking of digging, how does the meerkat go about that rather arduous task? The secret to its amazing tunnelling abilities is a strong retractable claw that it has at the end of each finger. These can be two centimetres in length and as well as helping the meerkat to dig they can be useful when shimmying up and down the odd tree. Even if the animal were to be domesticated (impossible) these claws would be a major drawback to being kept in and around homes as pets. A change may be as good as a rest – but you would get none of that with a meerkat.

The fawn coat of the meerkat is marked with grey, brown and tan – and sometimes can appear silvery. What makes them all the more attractive to us are the parallel stripes, short but dashed across their backs which extend from the tail all the way up to the shoulders. These stripes are unique to each meerkat and helps in identifying each other at a distance. The belly of the beast (as it were) is altogether different. There is a patch on the belly which has very little hair and the black skin underneath is visible. All things have a purpose, however, and this area helps to absorb heat when it is standing up. This is one reason the meerkats stand up in the morning – to warm up after the cold night of the desert in which they often live.

So, what do meerkats eat? Their diet is mostly one of insects but they will also eat plenty of other animals too. The meerkat menu includes lizards, snakes (an enemy that can sometimes kill meerkats so makes a tidy if vengeful lunch), scorpions, eggs, and small mammals. In the Kalahari Desert they are immune to the scorpion venom there – unlike us. They do need to eat regularly as well. One look at a meerkat and it is evident that they are very slim and slender. In fact they have no excess fat stores and so have to forage for food every single day. Even when they look fat, like this chap below, it is just the way he is sitting – honestly.

They do this in a group – safety after all can be found in numbers. While the rest of the group forage about there is always one sentry on guard, looking out for other animals with the same thing on their minds – food! This duty is usually for only around an hour so the sentry does not get left out of the hunt for insects. The sentry lets the others know that all is well by making a peep peep sound. If danger approaches then it barks as loud as it can or whistles the others to be careful or retreat. The babies will start foraging when they are around four weeks old – and they learn how to do it by watching an older experienced meerkat.

Meerkats are able to reproduce at around twelve months of age. The amount of pups varies between one and five though mostly this averages out at three. In the wild they can have up to four litters per year. As such they are an iteroparous species – this means that they can reproduce at any time of the year. When the pups are ready to leave the burrow the whole clan stands around to capture the moment. This miffs the slightly older but not yet adult meerkats some of which then proceed to show off as much as they possibly can in order to regain the focus of attention. There is no denying the cute factor, though.

Not all meerkats in a clan are allowed to mate. There is in meerkat society an alpha pair. These are the dominant male and female and they absolutely retain the right to mate and produce young. Any females found to be pregnant may be evicted. Even if this does not happen then once the pups are born the alpha female will usually kill them as soon as possible, even if the pups are related to her in some way. This may seem cruel but often the expelled females will meet up with a roving lone male and a new clan can be established this way – keeping the gene pool varied for future generations.

The meerkats live in large networks of underground burrows that they only leave during daylight hours. One set up like this is called a colony and on average there are between twenty and thirty animals in a colony. This can go to more than fifty but can be unsustainable for a long period due to its sheer size and animals competing to be the alpha. Most of the meerkats in a group will be related to the alpha pair in some way shape or form but occasionally adoptions of stray pups have been known to occur.

Their extremely social behaviour – as well as appearances on TV adverts (albeit in puppet form) and nature documentaries – have endeared the species to us. Their behaviour, which often incorporates games such as wrestling and racing, only serves to make a human audience fonder of them. However, human they are not and much of their natural behaviour can seem shocking to us. The meerkat remains, however, one of the more endearing African mammals.

In praise of the Mutt

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Many people buy a dog as a status symbol and so go for a certain breed to mirror their own lifestyle. Still more have a particular attachment to the specific look and behavior of pure breeds. However, for personality, joie de vivre, unadulterated love and many other positive traits, can anything beat a good old fashioned mutt?

Mutt! There is something in the word that the snob will naturally be disinclined to countenance. It just doesn’t fit in with what many potential owners would like to project about themselves when it comes to a canine best friend. The polite description, of course, is mixed-breed but it is amazing how many people consider it a form of doggy miscegeny and would never consider one as a pet. Just look at the names we have for these dogs – mongrel, bitzer, random-bred, tyke. It doesn’t really reflect positively, does it? Yet mixed-breed dogs can often make the best pets in the world ever. So, let’s take an affectionate look at the mutt.

The writer could be accused of using this space as simply an excuse for posting up a series of impossibly cute photographs of mixed-breed mutts – and that is something that is difficult (OK, impossible) to deny. However, many mutts end up in animal rescue centers and if this can convince one person that a rescue dog is just as good as a pedigree that costs a thousand dollars, then it is a job well done.

Many shelters are full of 57s as they are sometimes called and this is one of the more endearing names for a mutt. The slogan of the JH Heinz Company, boasted fifty seven varieties. When a dog is so called it is a jocular reference to the fact that its component breeds may be far too many to ever possibly trace.

Words are tricky things and so it is with the term mixed-breed. Most people assume that mutts are a product of the pairing of two specimens of defined breeds. These by definition are known as pure and they have been, predominantly, created by the meddling fingers of humanity to enhance specific characteristics of a certain dog. Mutts do not necessarily have to be a product of a mix of two pure-breed specimens. When two pure breeds are intentionally mated then that is known as a crossbreed.

The humble mutt is the product of two dogs of unknown breed – even though they can sometimes be fairly accurately guessed. Dogs will do it like they do it on the lDiscovery Channel with anything else that remotely resembles another dog. Often they get it right, though it must be said that sometimes the human leg is used as an occasional stand in. It is only when there is a massive disparity in size that interbreeding is impossible. That means the mutt comes in a huge variety of shapes, color and size and often they can defy physical classification.

In the Bahamas, mutts are generally called Pot Cakes, in reference to the leftovers which they are fed. The Brazilians are somewhat more forthright and they call them vira-lata which literally means trash-can tipper (and if you just went aaw, then you are quite possibly the converted being preached at already). This of course is a reference to the fact that these dogs are more often than not ownerless and because they have to fend for themselves have to resort to feeding off the detritus that mounts up on the streets of urban areas.

Bitzer is a term that is often used and does in fact sound like a proper dog breed! However, it stands for bits of this and bits of that. The denizens of Newfoundland will call a smaller mutt a cracky which is almost a ten on the cute scale in terms of names. The Americans – as well as having possibly the worst names – also have the most politically correct ones too. Some dog clubs that will accept mutts refer to them generally as All American. If it were not for our ‘interference’ the dog as a whole would have fulfilled the melting pot ideal long ago. Perhaps the funniest name for a mutt comes from South Africa where they are generally referred to as pavement specials.

The melting pot effect generally settles in to a norm after several generations. It has to be said, though, that adorable as many mixes are, some have the appearance that only a mother could love ! Broadly speaking mutts produced from many generations of other mutts are usually black to light brown and weigh in at about forty pounds. In terms of height they are usually between forty and sixty centimeters. And they have masses and masses of bounce.

Much has been said about the health advantages that mutts have over many pure-breeds and this too is generally true. Hybrid vigor is a theory that holds that dogs which have a varying ancestry will be healthier than those who are consistently bred pure. Why? When purebred dogs reproduce with each other they will carry a lot of the same alleles (which are discreet versions of the same genes). Some of these alleles will mean that the resulting offspring may have defects, particularly when the parents are closely related (as they occasionally are in pure-breeds). Inbreeding means that genetic health problems are far more likely to be exposed than in the 57s.

Put simply – the mutt has – to put it kindly – some rather haphazard parentage and this means greater genetic diversity. As there is less chance that the parents will carry the same recessive allele then genetic disorders are considerably less likely to become an issue among mutt society. Please note though that this is in praise of the mutt and that does not automatically make it a critique of the pure-breed.

If two unhealthy mutts mate there is no guarantee that the puppies will be healthier. In fact genetic law has it in for them and it is more than likely that the offspring will inherit the worst traits of both parents. Generally though, studies have consistently found mutts to be healthier and more long-lived than their pure-breed contemporaries.

Plus, of course, if you adopt or buy a puppy mutt then you may not get simply a larger version of the puppy when it matures! With purebreds, however, the adult appearance of the dog is predictable. The ‘fact’ that mutts are more intelligent than pure breeds is also something of a myth. Both types of dog have the ability to produce Einstein canines or indeed slow learners. There is no absolute scientific evidence to suggest that mutts are generally more intelligent than pures – but of course the debate will continue among owners for many years to come.

Most mutt owners take delight in the unique appearance of their own animal. You know absolutely what you are going to get with a pure breed but with mutts it is something of a lottery. Mutt lovers will insist that their dogs are, by the simple fact that each is different, preferable to a pure.

Choice of dog is, of course, up to the individual. However, if you are considering the acquisition of a NBCF (New Best Canine Friend) then stop for a second before you stretch the plastic even further than it is already. The great advantage that the mutt has – and always will – over the pure is that they are cheap, quite often free.

Amung Feedjit