Meerkats are well-known as animals that stand on their back legs and look around inquisitively. People have been asking me recently why this was, and although I knew the main reason, I was surprised to find others I didn’t know about.
Meerkats will stand on their back legs for a few reasons. Meerkats will use the increased height to survey their surroundings, calling out to other group members if any predators are nearby. They also use this position to get extra heat and to defend their territories from different groups of meerkats.
Here I go more in-depth about this fascinating behavior of meerkats and why they stand on their back legs.
Why do Meerkats Stand up on Their Back Legs?
Meerkats live in groups of as little as three members to larger ones ranging up to 30 members. These small animals are among the few that can live in such large groups successfully. A meerkat family group is referred to as a mob, a gang, or a clan.
Many people are familiar with the upright position of a meerkat. You will either see one meerkat or a group standing together. Animals, whether big or small, have distinct behavior, and there is a reason for this. Meerkats stand to attention for a few different purposes.
Meerkats have four legs and spend most of their time on all four legs, such as a dog would. However, once in a while, you will see a meerkat standing on its back legs. This is generally referred to as the sentry or watch guard position.
Every day in the morning, the clan heads out for food. Duties are distributed among the family members, with often one or more babysitters being left behind to take care of the young pups.
One of the meerkats takes up the sentry role while the rest begin their food search. It is usually one family member who is chosen to keep watch. However, sometimes, it can be two meerkats or more.
The meerkat on sentry duty will find a high spot, such as a termite mound or even a hill, and stand on its hind legs to watch the rest of the gang.
The meerkat who is on guard duty will stand on its hind legs. They will be better positioned to scan the surroundings for predators by being in this position. The predators of a meerkat group can be both aerial and terrestrial.
Being such small mammals, meerkats are susceptible to all kinds of predators. Due to being so small, the meerkat has to search for food quickly. By searching for prey quickly, they spend much less time in the open and away from predators. Meerkats will try to get back to their burrows very quickly. The shelters protect them from their natural predators.
The aerial predators of a meerkat are large birds such as eagles and hawks. The meerkats also need to look out for predators on the ground—many terrestrial predators, such as jackals, include animals that are much more significant than them.
The meerkats know that having one or more meerkats standing guard means that they can concentrate on foraging for food.
If the meerkat guarding the gang senses impending danger or a predator in the vicinity, the meerkat will warn the other members of the mob. The meerkat on sentry duty will let out a sound to warn the other members. This sound is generally a loud bark or high-pitched whistle.
Upon receiving the meerkat’s warning sound on guard duty, the other gang members will spontaneously run for cover. When there are no predators around, the meerkat will let the rest of the foraging meerkats know.
The meerkat on watch duty makes a peeping sound when everything is going well.
There is another reason why meerkats stand up straight on their back legs. This reason is to warm up their bodies from the cold nights. Being such small creatures, Meerkats need to keep their bodies warm and like to bask in the sun.
The sun’s warmth reaches a more significant part of their bodies when standing up. The skin area under a meerkat’s belly does not have much fur or hair and can get cold. This area under their belly is a black patch of skin.
In the morning, meerkats stand up on their hind legs to expose this skin area to the sun’s warmth. This is their typical way of warming up after a long, cold night in their burrows.
Defending Their Territories
Similar to many wild animals, meerkats are fiercely territorial. Meerkats do not like other meerkats from other groups invading their territory.
Meerkats will fight off and sometimes kill rival meerkat clans. Meerkats will threaten invaders by standing up straight on their hind legs. Standing up on their back legs is used to portray dominance.
A group of meerkats standing in the upright position can be seen as a large display of dominance to predators. This behavior of the meerkat can be used to scare off predators much more significantly than any individual meerkat.
How Can Meerkats Balance While Standing?
Not many wild animals can stand up on their hind legs the same way that meerkats can. A meerkat is unique in that it can stand on its hind legs continuously for over an hour.
A meerkat has a long slender tail that balances its two hind legs while standing up. The bottom propels the animal up so it does not fall backward.
The long tail also enables the meerkat to appear taller while in a standing position. This is important in aiding its vision of the surrounding area.
Why do Meerkats Stand up in Groups?
Meerkats live in groups to aid them in their chance of survival. Meerkats cooperate and work in groups. When they are not out foraging their surroundings for food, they can be found sunbathing or grooming each other.
When you see a family group of meerkats standing together, they may enjoy the sun’s warmth.
Defending Their Territories
Meerkats may be small animals, but they can be very fierce. This is especially true when it comes to defending their territories. Meerkats have scent glands underneath their tails, which they use to mark their territory.
There are often disputes among different meerkat clans because of territory. Other families of meerkats’ domains tend to overlap.
To scare away intruders, all members of a particular clan stand on their hind legs. This posture signals to the intruders that they are dominant in that territory.
Scaring Away Predators
On other occasions, meerkats may be seen standing up in a group to scare off a predator. Being a small animal, the meerkat knows it cannot face a potential enemy alone. For this reason, they work in groups to chase away predators.
All group members will stand on their back feet to appear larger and dominant. A meerkat clan can intimidate larger carnivores such as snakes and large birds.
When do Meerkats First Stand on Their Back Legs?
Standing up on their back feet is an adaptation for the meerkat to survive in their habitats. Baby meerkats, also known as pups, increase after birth.
A meerkat can stand up on all four feet as early as three weeks old. At about one month old, baby meerkats usually have already mastered standing on their hind legs.
At four weeks old, they are already venturing outside the den. Meerkats are family-oriented and share the duty of raising the young pups. The adult meerkats in the family teach the young everything, including how to stand on their two back legs.
The alpha male or an older family member may teach the young ones how to be sentries for the group. Soon after this happens, the pups will be ready to follow the gang to forage for food.
Do Meerkats Stand up When There are Humans Around?
Many wild animals, tiny in size, tend to be naturally cautious of humans. However, meerkats have proven to be very friendly to humans.
Meerkats are not shy of standing up when there are humans around. Although this behavior can take some time, they get habituated to humans’ presence.
Meerkats are not afraid of humans as long as they feel safe and sense no danger to themselves. It is easy to gain these small mammals’ trust to the point where they get comfortable around you. Meerkats can be pretty playful around humans.
Animal photographers who spend time in the wild find it easy to get close to meerkats. This animal may sometimes climb on top of a person and use him as higher ground. Meerkats will then stand on their hind legs to begin scanning their surroundings.
What Other Activities do Meerkats do While Standing?
Meerkats stand on their hind legs to better view the surrounding. However, these little creatures are vigilant. Sometimes, female meerkats will breastfeed the young pups while standing up.
They are pretty skilled and do it effortlessly. Meerkats will also engage in playful acts while standing on their hind legs.
A meerkat is a small mammal almost the same size as a squirrel, which belongs to the mongoose family. They live in groups of various sizes, each consisting of an alpha couple and their children. The baby meerkats are referred to as pups, and the older family members all take part in raising them.
The meerkats inhabiting North America are commonly known as the North American meerkats. The North American meerkats can be found in various environments, including deserts, forests, savannahs, and grasslands.
They prefer to live in the wild, but few are often seen in urban areas. These kinds of meerkats tend to be omnivores. They obtain some of their food from garbage bins.
On the other hand, wild meerkats can also visit civilized areas when looking for food. You might even have spotted one close to a sidewalk. This animal can be found in all North American regions except the Arctic.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.