Photographing Meerkats | The Best Animals to Photograph in Zoos
Maybe I’m biased, but I do think meerkats represent the best zoo photography opportunities. I think these gorgeous little creatures tick all of the animal photography boxes. Meerkats are accessible and can be found in most zoos and wildlife parks. They’re sociable, curious, cute, animated, and they have wonderful facial expressions. It’s unsurprising that wildlife and pet photographers will almost always gravitate to the meerkat enclosures. If you’re new to animal photography meerkats are fantastic subjects to start with because they’re so easy to photograph. They’ll happily pose for you for as long as necessary, which means they make excellent subjects for animal portraits.
But what exactly is a meerkat? A meerkat is a kind of mongoose. Their natural habitat is the deserts and scrubs of southern Africa. They live in family groups and there is a very distinct social system and pecking order. There can be as many as 50 members in the group and the group will be ruled by a dominant pair (with the female member of the pair in charge of the entire clan). As we should expect in the wild, it’s a ruthless system based on survival of the fittest - or rather the feistiest.
a matriarchal society
A meerkat clan is ruled by a dominant female. She maintains her position
and ensures the survival of her young by killing the pups of subordinate females
The dominant female will usually kill pups produced by subordinate females. This ensures the survival of the dominant pair’s offspring and it also ensures that there are plenty of lactating females around to help nurse them. In other words, she’s the only female in the group who breeds productively. As the dominant female’s daughters mature they’ll then be ousted if they show any signs of insubordination. This is to make way for newer offspring arising from the dominant pair. Other females will be allowed to remain as helpers, assuming they don’t step out of line. Occasionally dominant females are overthrown in which case they’ll be evicted.
Maturing males tend to leave the group voluntarily to roam and join or form another group. It all sounds quite feudal but it does help to prevent territories from becoming saturated. Numbers are kept in check in the group thanks to the dominant female killing the pups of subordinate females, and subordinate females killing the pups of other subordinate females in the hope their own will survive. I think it’s fair to say that these little animals probably aren’t quite how many of us have envisaged them! Who in their right mind would want to be a meerkat?!
On the physical side, they live for around 12 to 15 years. Meerkats are quite small with average heights being somewhere between 10 and 14 inches. They enjoy perching and will happily climb trees. Their diet mostly consists of insects, grubs, and small vertebrates. If you’ve ever seen documentaries about these fascinating creatures you may have noticed that while the group forages for food one of them will perform ‘sentry duty’, acting as a lookout. Communication takes the form of a range of calls.
There are reasons why animals like meerkats live in large groups, and that is safety. There are plenty of predators to worry about, with eagles and snakes being the most prominent threats.
I’m quite curious to know if the strict social protocols I’ve just described are exhibited in captivity. Next time I visit a meerkat enclosure I’ll be sure to ask the keepers about what goes on. Since a zoo enclosure is a contained territory, and since numbers will be controlled by humans, it will be interesting to find out if some of the meerkats still exhibit dominance over the others.