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Wild meerkats / suricates have a gestation period of around ten and a half to eleven weeks.
Usually the dominant female will evict subordinate females from the group when she is in oestrus. She will allow them back into the group once she has given birth.
Usually these evicted females will not be allowed back into thier natal groups after the age of three years. They bcome a potential threat to the dominant female's breeding status then, as they become more experienced.
Wild meerkats reach puberty from around nine months of age and females usually have their first oestrus at that time. Captive meerkats often reach puberty earlier at approximately six months of age.
After parturition (giving birth), the dominant female has a post partem oestrus usually on day seven. She is usually able to conceive again under favourable environmental conditions. A single breeding dominant female may have up to three litters of pups a year.
During oesturs the dominant male will guard the dominant female to prevent other males mating with her. There is no incest within a wild meerkat group- the dominant male and female are not directly related to each other.
Animals that grow up together do not interbreed, this behaviour prevents mutant allele's accumulating in the gene pool.
Usually the breeding season is during the warmer months of spring and summer, but occasionally meerkats will breed during the winter months after unusual rainfall patterns, which determine food availability.
In the Kalahari desert rainfall is mostly during the summer months of September to May. In the Little Karroo rainfall is usually during the winter months from June to late August. These rainfall patterns influence the different meerkat subspecies breeding cycles.
After very heavy rainfall years in the Kalahari, meerkat groups bred through the winter months.
With an increased rainfall pattern for a year, vegetation flourishes and so do the creatures that survive on this flora. With an abundance of invertebrates eating the flora, meerkats flourish by eating the invertebrates, and these "times of plenty" often overlap with meerkat birthing cycles.
Usually not more then four to six pups are born by a single breeding female at a time.
The pups are born with their eyes closed and with very little hair covering, and are totally reliant on the meerkat group for their survival- food, shelter and warmth.
In the warmer months these meerkat pups will emerge from around day ten, when their eyes begin to open. In the colder months, these meerkat pups may only emerge after three weeks, or twenty four days.
In the Kalahari meerkats usually begin to breed from around September through to May. In the Little Karroo the breeding season seems to start around June through to around January. But this is not certain yet.
The meerkat pups are looked after by "babysitters" for the entire day, usually the dominant female will be away from the pups foraging for food to produce milk for them, but may also return to the burrow during the day to allow them to suckle on her.
Often babysitters will spend the entire day looking after the pups without eating any food themselves, this is very altruistic, and this sociable caring behaviour ensures the survival of the pups. Even unrelated (to the pups) babysitters will look after the pups!
Once the pups emerge, within a few weeks after birth they begin to become weaned off their mothers milk and get fed solid food by other group members.
The dominant female begins to feed the pups more frequently as they become weaned off her milk, but before this she relies on other group members to care for them, as she needs the energy of the food she eats to produce enough milk for her pups.
Meerkat pups learn which food to eat by watching other older meerkats- "teachers". The pups learn by association which foods are edible and how to dispatch the food item efficiently.
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