Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Meet the Meerkats(and a few of their friends!)

I've had this picture sitting around in my computer for the longest time. Can't really tell you why--just an oddity I couldn't quite part with. Something in those eyes, which I first thought were photoshopped. Downright anthropomorphic, like someone graphically superimposed people eyes on 'em. Real or fabricated, they're still somehow compelling.They draw you in.
   Anything is possible I guess, but not the case here. Those are their real peepers, eyes that look at you with what comes off(at least to me)as a thoughtful reserve. These animals are Meerkats, also called Suricates. They're members of the Mongoose family, and are found in various locations in southern Africa: all over the Khalahari Desert in Botswana, much of the Namib Desert in Namibia, southwestern Angola and South Africa. 
   They're classified as omnivores, but insects are their main thing there in the arid desert . For their daily bread, they often have to compete with the smaller birds, mainly their "buddy" the Drongo. And also to watch out for bigger(and thus predatory)birds--mainly the varieties of Eagle that can swoop them from the ground in a New York second. 
  For the Meerkats, it's a bit like being in a Boxing ring, where the object is to hit and not get hit. Here the objective is to eat and not get eaten.
  In this area, Mr Drongo is a bit of a trickster. He is known to sound a warning cry , to signal an approaching Eagle. Then, as the Meerkats scamper to safety, he'll come down and eat their food. Some varieties of Drongo are skilled at mimicry and can imitate the sound of the Meerkats' sentinel, sending them scurrying to safety from another false alarm.
 Much of the time, the Drongo's warning cries are legitimate. But still, a guy's gotta eat..
  Back to the Meerkats. Very social creatures,  they generally live in families of 20 to 30, and as many as 50.  There is a designated Alpha Pair, the Prom King and Queen who propagate the species, and everyone else has their roles to play as well. They generally have litters of one to four pups, and live around 10 to 12 years, probably less there in the wild. 

  Due to the extreme heat, they aren't out in the sunlight for very long during the day, only enough to forage for food. Their dwellings are a network of underground tunnels which protect them from the elements. And that's all I know(perhaps even less)about Meerkats. 
   Africa has some amazing birds, besides the mischievous Mr Drongo. The Picathartes is a beautifully and strangely colored creature, who, like Pigeons and Catholics,mates for life(to quote the old Woody Allen joke). The parents share their duties of watching the nest/foraging for food in shifts. Not much time to work with as far as getting their young ones ready. They live in central Africa, in the 
tropical region.     
                                And I didn't even get started about the Elephants or Black Rhinos and their respective communities, or the myriad other life forms ekking out an existence there.  

Last but not least, though, I must mention the Shoebill. Strangely familiar, but that might just be a memory from something out of  Walt Disney- or, more aptly, Dr Seuss. These very odd birds are found in central Africa, in the tropical climates.They look very jovial, but I wouldn't want to get too close.
                              All of this information is courtesy a fascinating documentary series on Africa I just finished watching. I never was a Discovery Channel nut growing up--my Dad had an occasional thing for them-- but shows about wildlife get my attention anymore--particularly when the wildlife is as exotic(and at times downright psychedelic)as was found in the show I just watched. 
          I even know the names of a few more of those 54 countries. Some, of course, have changed over the years. For example,  Tanganyika, which I remembered as a kid, is now Tanzania. But most have been there as long as I can remember. Big countries like Algeria and Libya, tiny ones like Rwanda and Swaziland. Lesotho I'd forgotten about, speaking of Chihuahua-sized lands. It's completely surrounded by South Africa, sort of a country-within-a-country. Hope they don't have any plans to try to take over the world..

 Anyway! A fascinating glimpse into the world of wild animals. Their social structure of course  parallels that of the human animal, with their designated leaders and followers- and the concomitant power struggles between the leaders and would-be leaders, from Elephants to Giraffes to Lions and on down the line.  Interesting to observe the gathering places for Elephants and Black Rhinos and others. A place to meet, mingle and mate. 

For what it's worth, there is also supposed to be a community of marine life, found at the sea's floor. It's called the Benthos, and was no doubt the inspiration for Spongebob Squarepants' hometown of Bikini Bottom.  

This current stumble, into the land of Africa's wildlife, has awakened an appetite in me. Maybe not to go there, but certainly to view more. Discovery channel, here I come. Wow, in my advancing age, I'm turning into my Dad.                                                                 


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