By Christine Lavelle
IT’S not every day you find yourself with a meerkat using you as a watch tower to keep guard of potential predators.
But it was the case for Claire Murphy, 35, when she travelled to the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, to monitor the behaviour and lifestyles of the small mammals.
She said: “The meerkats work in shifts to keep guard for threats, whether that be aerial or something coming on the ground.
“They tend to use the highest vantage point – a tree or a bush – to allow them to see all around, but in this particular case Basil, who was part of the Lazuli group I was monitoring, took it upon himself to climb up my body and sit on my head.
“He did it a few times, and I had no idea what to do.
“He just refused to get down, and because meerkats are wild animals there was always a danger of being bitten so I couldn’t touch him.
“The rest of the group were leaving and he was still up there, so I had to crouch down to the point that I was actually rolling on the ground to encourage him to step off.
“It was pretty surreal.”
The meerkats Ms Murphy was studying have since become the stars of BBC TV programme Meerkat Manor.
But, she said she was unable to watch the TV show when it aired because “it was just too weird”.
She said: “These were animals that I had named when I was out there, and the one time I did see the programme one of the pups – Mozart – who I had watched in infancy, died, and it was just too upsetting to view again.”
Ms Murphy said watching them go about their daily business was like watching a soap opera on the television.
She said: “There is always so much drama and infidelity.
“Very often meerkats from groups would stray over into this one, and there was a time I saw the dominant female go off with a straggler male – before returning to cosy up to the dominant male of the group.”
Meerkats are members of the mongoose family, and can be found roaming in all parts of the Kalahari Desert, living together in groups of between 20 and 40.
The animals have become hugely popular since car insurance company Compare the Market launched an ad campaign featuring an outspoken meerkat called Alexander who insists he comes from Moscow.
Ms Murphy, originally from Kinghorn in Fife, spent a year volunteering at the Kuruman River Meerkat Reserve, which is about six miles south of the Botswana border, collecting information for a research project conducted by Cambridge University.
She worked in a group with 15 other volunteers, each with their own group of meerkats to study.
She said: “We had to be really specific, and we had to be sure which one was which.
“We actually used hair dye to mark each meerkat somewhere on the body, to make them clearly identifiable.”
The former Aberdeen University student now lives in Bristol, and hopes to follow her childhood dream by pursuing a career with a television company, making wildlife documentaries.