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"Meerkat" is a loanword from Afrikaans.  The name has a Dutch origin but by misidentification.  Dutch meerkat refers to the "guenon", a monkey of the Cercopithecus genus.  The word "meerkat" is Dutch for "lake cat", but the suricata is not in the cat family, and neither suricatas nor guenons are attracted to lakes; the word possibly started as a Dutch adaptation of a derivative of Sanskrit marka = "monkey", perhaps in Africa via an Indian sailor on board a Dutch East India Company ship.  The traders of the Dutch East India Company were likely familiar with monkeys, but the Dutch settlers attached the name to the wrong animal at the Cape.  The suricata is called stokstaartje = "little stick-tail" in Dutch.

According to African popular belief (mainly in the Zambian/Zimbabwean region), the meerkat is also known as the sun angel, as it protects villages from the moon devil or the werewolf which is believed to attack stray cattle or lone tribesmen.

The meerkat is a small diurnal herpestid (mongoose) weighing on average about 731 grams (1.61 lb) for males and 720 grams (1.6 lb) for females.  Its long slender body and limbs give it a body length of 25 to 35 centimetres (9.8 to 14 in) and an added tail length of 17 to 25 centimetres (6.7 to 9.8 in).  Its tail is not bushy like all other mongoose species, but is rather long and thin and tapers to a black or reddish colored pointed tip.  The meerkat uses its tail to balance when standing upright.  Its face tapers, coming to a point at the nose, which is brown.  The eyes always have black patches around them and it has small black crescent-shaped ears that can close to exclude soil when digging.  Like cats, meerkats have binocular vision, a large peripheral range, depth perception, and eyes on the front of their faces.

At the end of each of a meerkat's "fingers" is a non-retractable, strong, 2 centimetres (0.79 in) long, curved claw used for digging burrows and digging for prey.  Claws are also used with muscular hindlegs to help climb trees.  They have four toes on each foot and long slender limbs.  The coat is usually fawn-colored peppered with gray, tan, or brown with a silver tint.  They have short parallel stripes across their backs, extending from the base of the tail to the shoulders.  The patterns of stripes are unique to each meerkat.  The underside of the meerkat has no markings, but the belly has a patch which is only sparsely covered with hair and shows the black skin underneath.  The meerkat uses this area to absorb heat while standing on its rear legs, usually early in the morning after cold desert nights.

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