What's new at Basel Zoo

No sooner have Basel Zoo’s two young meerkats emerged from underground than they are hard at work: they need to learn the meerkats’ sophisticated language.

On 26 January at Basel Zoo, two tiny meerkats, barely four weeks old, peered out from their burrow in the Etosha house for the first time. Ever since, they have been darting around between the adults’ legs and watching everything they do very closely.

No one can say exactly how old the siblings are as meerkats give birth in their underground burrows. When you see them in the zoo for the first time, their eyes are already open and they are able to move around the enclosure on their own. The two little ones are still drinking their mother’s milk, but are already trying the food given to the other members of their group.

Their mother is receiving help with raising her offspring: each little one has their very own teacher to show them how to find food, turn stones and catch small prey. Even other childcare tasks are not left to the mother alone: helpers from the meerkat group care for the little ones and keep them warm and protected.

Talkative meerkats

Meerkats live in colonies and share tasks out among the group: there are watchers, hunters and babysitters. Meerkats use different cries to coordinate their activities, and these constant ‘chats’ can be easily heard at Basel Zoo. This ensures that meerkats don’t lose track of each other, as the cries mean that every animal knows where all the others are and stop them getting in each other’s way when hunting for food.

Meerkats recognise the members of their group by their voices. They change their cries depending on who is listening and how old or senior the other animal is. For example, older subordinate females near to a dominant female offer up particularly short calls.

Look out, enemies about

A sophisticated alarm system means that meerkats are true survival specialists: one animal always keeps watch, with members of the group taking it in turns. If the watcher spots an enemy, they immediately emit a shrill cry. They use different cries depending on the particular danger they want to announce. Studies by researchers have decoded countless sounds and meanings. If the watcher reports an airborne enemy, such as a bird of prey, the entire group will disappear into their burrow or into shelter holes created for this purpose. If a nearby enemy is identified on the ground, they start by working together to drive it away. Meerkats are surprisingly successful against dangerous enemies such as snakes or jackals. Large meerkat groups are safer than small ones, as they can always be sure of having enough watchers to warn of dangers.

Meerkats are carnivorans belonging to the mongoose family. They live in large social groups and can be found in open, dry areas of southern Africa. Basel Zoo is currently home to eight meerkats. Offspring are born after a pregnancy lasting just eleven weeks.