Mongooses - Brave and Co-operative
Letter from one zoo curator to another: "Dear Sir, would you be so kind as to send me a pair of mongoose for my collection. No sorry, that must be a pair of mongooses, or is it a pair of mongeese? I tell you what. Please send me one mongoose, and then send me another! Yours thankfully".
(With apologies to Spike Milligan)
As small terrestrial carnivores related to weasels and polecats, mongooses are similar in design and ecology to the first mammalian carnivores which appeared on the scene when the dinosaurs vanished 60 million years ago.
Much has changed in terms of mammal evolution since then and twenty three species of mongoose occur in Africa. Most are opportunistic feeders, solitary and active after dark. The habits of many are therefore poorly known, but those of the diurnal, group-living representatives have been intensely studied.
A thing for snakes
Mongooses are well known for their desire and ability to attack and kill snakes. The Egyptian mongoose - which ranges across Africa into Asia - is sometimes kept as a pet to keep snakes away from households. Almost all mongooses spring into immediate action when they see a snake, eager to dispatch what would be a predatory threat and getting a succulent meal in the process. Mongooses are so fast and agile that they can out-jump a strike from an adder, duck when spat at by a cobra, and grasp a serpent's throat before it can say "ricky-ticky-tavi".
United we stand
Three species of diurnal, social mongoose are fascinating and highly entertaining to watch. The banded mongoose lives in troops of up to 40 members, foraging for beetles and other invertebrates. They stay in constant sight of each other, with at least one member of the troop keeping a vigil for eagles and other dangers while the rest feed.
Amazing incidents of bravery have been noted by these tenacious animals in Kenya's Masai Mara by guides based at Kichwa Tembo camp. Here, they have been spotted coming to the aid of individuals captured by jackals, baboons and even Martial Eagles. Mongooses were also seen chasing off a Maasai herdboy and his dogs!
Such altruistic behaviour is extremely rare among animals and is probably linked to a close genetic relationship between troop members. Home for banded mongooses - and many other species - is a termite mound, where the chambers are easily modified into burrows.
Dwarfs and hornbills
The tiny dwarf mongoose lives in family groups averaging eight members. A termite mound is occupied for a home base and it is not uncommon to see these cute bug-eyed creatures sunning themselves outside their hole on a chilly winter morning.
An interesting mutualistic relationship exists in some areas between the dwarf mongoose and three species of hornbill. The mammals and birds forage together, while also providing an early warning sign of approaching danger. The hornbills more easily detect raptors overhead, while the mongoose's sense of smell picks up terrestrial predators.
As the mongooses scratch through the soil for insects, they disturb some which evade their grasp, and these are plucked up by the hornbills. Both species are known to wait for the other before going out to forage, and the hornbills have even been recorded to 'wake up' dozing mongooses by calling down their burrows!
Sleek or shaggy
The most frequently encountered solitary mongoose is the slender mongoose, which is active both by day and night. The coat colour is variable (though typically rusty red) but the black tail tip is distinctive. This mongoose feeds on insects, lizards and rodents as well as bird's eggs and nestlings.
The shaggy-coated marsh mongoose is not uncommon in suitable habitat alongside rivers and swamps, where it feeds on crabs and molluscs. The badger-sized white-tailed mongoose is the largest of the family and is regularly encountered on sand tracks after dark.
Where to see mongooses at CCAfrica lodges
Good mongoose viewing prevails at every CCAfrica lodge, with banded mongoose being most approachable at Kichwa Tembo in Kenya (where one troop is resident in the camp surrounds). In South Africa, Ngala and Londolozi provide magnificent opportunities to see and photograph dwarf mongoose at their burrows, as well as white-tailed mongoose on night drives. The rare Meller's mongoose is occasionally seen after dark at Bongani in South Africa.
Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals.
Academic Press, London.
Ole Kerore, J. 1999. "Banded Mongoose Show Tenacity in Defence". Ecological Journal 1:140.
Stuart, C & T. 1997. The Larger Mammals of Africa.
Struik, Cape Town.
Posted: Mammals by CC Africa, Date: 21 November 2006