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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.

The Schmidt Sting Pain Index: How Much Could You Take?

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Have you ever been stung by a bee? Want to know how much you have suffered on a scale of one to four? Then take a look at the Schmidt Sting Pain Index which rates the relative pain caused by the sting of hymenoptera. That would be sawflies, wasps, bees and ants to most of us.

The Sweat Bee

Schmidt describes the sting of the Sweat Bee as “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.” Sweat bees are a large family of bees and they are hugely attracted to humans. Specifically, it is the salt in our sweat that they like.

They are very common all over the world except in South East Asia and Australia where there are few branches of the family tree known as Halicitidae. As they have a desire to lap up our sweat for its salt content that means that contact with humans is common and the squeeze of fingers of splat of palms are as common as the insect. It’s a shame that this makes the bee sting us, as left alone it will take the salt and buzz off. Fortunately, on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (which we will acronymise and call the SSPI from here on in) it is nothing much to worry about. In fact on the scale of one to four it comes in at a measly one – no decimal point.

The Fire Ant
Coming in at 1.2 on the scale is the Fire Ant (species in the genus Solenopsis). Way off the four yet if you are stung by one of these it will sting and swell up in to a bump. Schmidt describes it as “Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet & reaching for the light switch.”

If you don’t leave it alone the bump can become infected as it forms a milky white pustule which reacts badly to scratching. If they do get infected then you will probably be scarred. Of course if you suffer anaphylaxis you may not have to worry about scars unless you can get emergency treatment quickly. There are around two hundred and eight species of the fire ant world wide so you have to watch out wherever you are. Schmidt, incidentally, is an American entomologist who wrote many papers on the subject of hymenoptera – and claims to have been stung by most of them.

The Acacia Ant
Mutualism is a symbiotic relationship between two species, and so it is with the Bullhorn Acacia and the eponymous ant that inhabits its hollowed out thorns. The ants are essentially a defense mechanism (Def Ant Four perhaps) that protects it against animals, insects or us. As a thank you the tree supplies the ants with protein from the tips of its leaves and nectar from the glands situated on every leaf stalk. Where exactly evolution came in here is anyone’s guess as there is no other known function for these ‘beltian bodies’ (named after their discoverer, Thomas Belt). However, for their food the ants don’t half give a nasty nip, Schmidt rates it as 1.8 on his scale and compares it to as if someone has fired a staple into your cheek. A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain.” Nice.

Bald Faced Hornet
The Black Faced Hornet is an imposter! Not for being on this list, of course, but because it isn’t really a hornet at all. It was one of the yellow jacket species of wasps found in the United States and Canada. It has an exposed aerial nest which is reminiscent of hornets and that is why the name stuck. You can find this black and white beasty in its nest which can often reach three feet tall.

It is the female workers rather than the drones that possess the sting and it comes in at half way up the SSPI at 2. Schmidt gleefully tells us that this one is “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” Aah.

The Yellowjacket
A relation of the above, this beautiful insect comes in at 2 on the SSPI as well. If you are from Europe you know this simply as a wasp, but in the US they have given it a rather more memorable name. None of the males can sting, so, gentlemen (and ladies) beware the female of the species.

Schmidt recognizes the fact that this is a painful stinger when he says “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine WC Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” Their sting looks like a lance with small barbs and the Yellowjacket does not, as some believe, stop stinging you after the first attempt. They go at you repeatedly though it must be said that sometimes they strike with such force that the sting becomes embedded and when the wasp pulls back the sting is pulled free. If you just said ‘ew’ then you are not alone.

The Honey Bee
The Honey Bee (the European variety is shown above) comes from all over but seems to have started out in South East Asia. It is about the most plesiomorphic creature on the planet. That is, the Apis family to which it belongs is found in the fossil record from thirty million years ago as pretty much as it is now.

How many stings altogether that would be over the millions of years is anyone’s guess. How its sting feels many of you reading this will know already. How close is it to “like a matchhead that flips off and burns on your skin”? That is certainly how Schmidt describes it and the author, for one agrees. More painful than the yellowjacket, it is still, however, in the two of the SSPI. As is…

The European Hornet
Appropriate that the two insects which share the same sting pain index should be pictured together. However, it is the European Hornet that is making a meal of the Honey Bee in the picture below, if you look closely.

This would in some quarters be referred to as a big mother and the queen can reach one and a half inches in length. Although this creature can sting with the best of them it is not a very aggressive creature. Go near or disturb its nest, however, and that is another story. Hold on tight, though, we are about to get to the threes on the SSPI. In the meantime, here's a European Hornet dismembering a hoverfly...

The Red Harvester Ant
The South West of the United States is home to the Red Harvester Ants, which comes in at a three on the SSPI. As you may expect from their name, their food consists of seeds. These seeds are hoarded in huge numbers and are protected ferociously by the ants.

The sting itself is particularly nasty as it spreads to the lymph nodes of the victim and can cause nasty reaction. Schmidt does not shy away from putting words to effect to describe the sting – “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your toe nail.” Oh, they bite too.

The Paper Wasp
The Paper Wasp will only attack if confronted or threatened, which is a shame if you find a nest in your loft but hey ho. When and if it does sting, though, you will be sorry. Schmidt compares it to something “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”

They get their name from their nest which is made from dead wood fiber and the stems of plants. They mix it with their saliva and the result is a papery substance which is the perfect building material for their water resistant nest. Like the harvester ant, this is a three on our pain scale.

The Tarantula Hawk Wasp
If you hunt Tarantulas for your supper then the bets must be on evens that you have a pretty almighty sting. So it is with the Tarantula Hawk Wasp which is at a four on the SSPI. With a very dark blue body and reddish wings, it doesn’t look terribly threatening.

However, they have enormous stingers, so large in fact that not many animals can eat them without doing themselves enormous damage. One creature that can is the Roadrunner. Well, beep ruddy beep. Although not aggressive unless provoked, best not to approach too closely. Schmidt tells us that the sting is “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath.”

The Bullet Ant
At the top of the list with a Schmidt Sting Pain Index of four PLUS, is the Bullet Ant. You really do not want to be stung by one of these. You would suffer wave upon wave of burning pain which will not reduce for over a day – by which time you would no doubt wish you were dead anyway. It is found in the lowland rainforests of Nicaragua down to Paraguay.

It looks very much like a wasp which has had its wings pulled off (no doubt by a smug school boy, which would explain its anger). Not to put too fine a point on that, one of the coming of age rituals among indigenous peoples within its habitat is this. You don’t become a man until you have been stung by this creature twenty times. Without screaming. Let us leave the final description to Schmidt. The sting of the Bullet Ant is “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel. Ouch,

Amung Feedjit