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10 Fascinating, Furry Facts About Meerkats

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Non-animated versions don’t typically befriend warthogs or lion cubs, but real live meerkats have plenty of adorable quirks of their own.

1. They Recognize Each Other’s Voices.

Just as humans can identify our friends’ and family’s voices over the phone, a 2011 study showed that meerkats can distinguish between the calls of different members of their clan. Scientists played a recording of the same meerkat from hidden speakers on opposite sides of test animals. According to WIRED, "The situation was similar to hearing a friend shout from the kitchen, then from the second-floor bathroom just a second later." Indicating that they recognized this as an impossible situation, the test meerkats showed “a prolonged vigilance, paying much closer attention than they did to other recorded calls. The situation didn’t compute.”

2. They Work Together ...

Meerkat clans, also known as mobs and gangs, hunt together in a collaborative effort that involves designated lookouts who rotate regularly and rely on a series of distinct calls to communicate to their compatriots. If a predator like a snake is detected, the gang will gather to harass the snake, biting and clawing at it until it retreats or is killed—a bold move one meerkat could never attempt alone.

3. ... And Even Babysit Each Other’s Pups.

While most of the gang is out foraging and hunting for food—or standing guard—one male or female, adolescent or young adult stays behind in the burrow to “babysit” any pups. This is not an official job—whichever adult is least hungry is put on pup-sitting duty—but the other meerkats do reward their sitter with food at the end of the day.

4. They Teach Their Young.

Adult meerkats are immune to scorpion poison—a good thing when you regularly make treats out of the stinging arthropods. But it takes talent to tuck into that sort of prey—even with their poison nullified, a scorpion can still do damage with his pinchers—and pups aren’t born prepared for such a vicious meal. Research done in 2006 showed that “helper” meerkats actively teach the younger generation how to hunt through a series of increasingly difficult tasks. "So when pups are very little they get brought dead prey, like scorpions, lizards, and spiders; as they start to get older, helpers will bring them prey that's been disabled, so if it's a scorpion the helper might bite the sting off before giving it to the pup,” scientist Alex Thornton told the BBC.

5. Gangs are Matriarchal.

Meerkat gangs, which can reach up to 40 or 50 animals, are structured around an alpha couple to whom most of the other members are somehow related. Within the dominant pair, ultimately it is the female who rules the burrow, and she isn’t always a benevolent boss. Only the alpha female is allowed to reproduce; if subordinate females get pregnant, the alpha female will banish them from the burrow or even kill their pups. Research conducted in 2013 found that some subordinate females will serve as wet nurses to alpha female pups in order to re-ingratiate themselves after getting banished.

6. Matriarchs Are Really Really Selfish.

As if infanticide and exile weren’t bad enough, alpha females only have their own interests at heart. A 2013 study showed that when a gang of meerkats approaches a road—which represents an unknown and potential danger—alpha females tend to suddenly fall back, letting lower ranking females brave the pavement first.

7. They Use Their Bellies To Keep Warm.

Meerkats' fuzzy tan coats give way to a sparsely covered patch on their underbellies [PDF]. The hair is thin enough there that you can see their black skin underneath—which is precisely the point. After a restful night in the chilly burrow, meerkats climb back out into the desert sun and stand up to expose to their bare bellies to the rays, which absorb heat and warm the animals up.

8. The Forked-Tail Drongo Mimics Meerkat Calls.

The African drongo scavenges for food by tricking other animals into abandoning their hard-earned meals with carefully crafted calls that imitate the warning sounds of other species. So after a gang of meerkats has made their kill or foraged sufficient food, the drongo will descend among them and mimic the same warning call a meerkat sentry might make in the event of a predator. The gang scatters, and the drongo gets a free meal.

9. Baby Meerkats Rely On Their Plaintive Calls For Free Food

This is another indication of just how specific and diverse meerkat sounds can be. A 2009 study showed that adult meerkats are more susceptible to spoiling their babies when the wee meerkats beg for food and attention with squeaky, high-pitched cries. As the pups age and their voices deepen, their mews have less of an effect on the adults around them, and they are forced to learn to forage for themselves. Researchers tested this by playing baby sounds around adult meerkats, who were suddenly inspired to give up their meals to older juveniles.

10. They Have Gang Fights.

Although they are social and even affectionate within their clan, meerkats are highly territorial and will engage in violent, all-out turf wars with neighboring gangs. The fights are waged as a collective, with each gang posturing and attempting to intimidate the opposition first. If this fails, the fight will be brief but deadly—less than half all adult meerkats survive any given year.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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Animals
Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know
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For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.

1. SPLOOT

You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.

2. DERP

Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.

3. BLEP

Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.

4. MLEM

Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.

5. FLOOF

Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.

6. BORK

Dog outside barking.
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According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.

7. DOGGO

Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.
iStock

Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”

8. SMOL

Tiny kitten in grass.
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Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.

9. PUPPER

Hands holding a puppy.
iStock

Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.

11. SNOOT

Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.
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Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.

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Animals
10 Biting Facts About Snapping Turtles
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Here in the Americas, lake monster legends are a dime a dozen. More than a few of them were probably inspired by these ancient-looking creatures. In honor of World Turtle Day, here are 10 things you might not have known about snapping turtles.

1. THE COMMON SNAPPING TURTLE IS NEW YORK'S OFFICIAL STATE REPTILE.

Elementary school students voted to appoint Chelydra serpentina in a 2006 statewide election. Weighing as much as 75 pounds in the wild (and 86 in captivity), this hefty omnivore’s natural range stretches from Saskatchewan to Florida.

2. ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES CAN BE LARGE. (VERY LARGE.)

An alligator snapping turtle
NorbertNagel, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Utterly dwarfing their more abundant cousin, alligator snappers (genus: Macrochelys) are the western hemisphere’s biggest freshwater turtles. The largest one on record, a longtime occupant of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, weighed 249 pounds.  

A monstrous 403-pounder was reported in Kansas during the Great Depression, though this claim was never confirmed.  

3. COMMON SNAPPERS HAVE LONGER NECKS AND SPIKIER TAILS.

Alligator snappers also display proportionately bigger heads and noses plus a trio of tall ridges atop their shells. Geographically, alligator snapping turtles are somewhat restricted compared to their common relatives, and are limited mainly to the southeast and Great Plains.

4. BOTH VARIETIES AVOID CONTACT WITH PEOPLE.

If given the choice between fight and flight, snapping turtles almost always distance themselves from humans. The animals spend the bulk of their lives underwater, steering clear of nearby Homo sapiens. However, problems can arise on dry land, where the reptiles are especially vulnerable. Females haul themselves ashore during nesting season (late spring to early summer). In these delicate months, people tend to prod and handle them, making bites inevitable.

5. YOU REALLY DON'T WANT TO GET BITTEN BY ONE. 

Snapping turtle jaw strength—while nothing to sneeze at—is somewhat overrated. Common snapping turtles can clamp down with up to 656.81 newtons (N) of force, though typical bites register an average of 209 N. Their alligator-like cousins usually exert 158 N. You, on the other hand, can apply 1300 N between your second molars.

Still, power isn’t everything, and neither type of snapper could latch onto something with the crushing force of a crocodile’s mighty jaws. Yet their sharp beaks are well-designed for major-league shearing. An alligator snapping turtle’s beak is capable of slicing fingers clean off and (as the above video proves) obliterating pineapples.

Not impressed yet? Consider the following. It’s often said that an adult Macrochelys can bite a wooden broom handle in half. Intrigued by this claim, biologist Peter Pritchard decided to play MythBuster. In 1989, he prodded a 165-pound individual with a brand new broomstick. Chomp number one went deep, but didn’t quite break through the wood. The second bite, though, finished the job.

6. SCIENTISTS RECENTLY DISCOVERED THAT THERE ARE THREE SPECIES OF ALLIGATOR SNAPPING TURTLES.

A 2014 study trisected the Macrochelys genus. For over a century, naturalists thought that there was just a single species, Macrochelys temminckii. Closer analysis proved otherwise, as strong physical and genetic differences exist between various populations. The newly-christened M. suwanniensis and M. apalachicolae are named after their respective homes—namely, the Suwannee and Apalachicola rivers. Further west, good old M. temminckii swims through the Mobile and the Mississippi.

7. THANKS TO A 19TH CENTURY POLITICAL CARTOON, COMMON SNAPPING TURTLES ARE ALSO KNOWN AS "OGRABMES." 

Snapping turtle cartoon
Urban~commonswiki via Wiki Commons // CC BY PD-US

Drawn by Alexander Anderson, this piece skewers Thomas Jefferson’s signing of the unpopular Embargo Act. At the president’s command, we see a snapping turtle bite some poor merchant’s hind end. Agitated, the victim calls his attacker “ograbme”—“embargo” spelled backwards.

8. ALLIGATOR SNAPPERS ATTRACT FISH WITH AN ORAL LURE …

You can’t beat live bait. Anchored to the Macrochelys tongue is a pinkish, worm-like appendage that fish find irresistible. Preferring to let food come to them, alligator snappers open their mouths and lie in wait at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. Cue the lure. When this protrusion wriggles, hungry fish swim right into the gaping maw and themselves become meals.

9.  … AND THEY FREQUENTLY EAT OTHER TURTLES. 


Complex01, WikimediaCommons

Alligator snappers are anything but picky. Between fishy meals, aquatic plants also factor into their diet, as do frogs, snakes, snails, crayfish, and even relatively large mammals like raccoons and armadillos. Other shelled reptiles are fair game, too: In one Louisiana study, 79.82% of surveyed alligator snappers had turtle remains in their stomachs.

10. YOU SHOULD NEVER PICK A SNAPPER UP BY THE TAIL.

Ideally, you should leave the handling of these guys to trained professionals. But what if you see a big one crossing a busy road and feel like helping it out? Before doing anything else, take a few moments to identify the turtle. If it’s an alligator snapper, you’ll want to grasp the lip of the upper shell (or “carapace”) in two places: right behind the head and right above the tail.

Common snappers demand a bit more finesse (we wouldn’t want one to reach back and nip you with that long, serpentine neck). Slide both hands under the hind end of the shell, letting your turtle’s tail dangle between them. Afterwards, clamp down on the carapace with both thumbs.

Please note that lifting any turtle by the tail can permanently dislocate its vertebrae. Additionally, remember to move the reptile in the same direction that it’s already facing. Otherwise, your rescue will probably turn right back around and try to cross the road again later. 

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