Definitions

indian mongoose

Mongoose

[mong-goos, mon-]

A mongoose (plural: mongooses) is a member of the family Herpestidae (although also used for some members of Eupleridae), a family of small, cat-like carnivores. The word mongoose is derived from the Marathi word mangus and has no etymological connection to the word goose.

Description

Mongooses live in southern Asia, Africa, and southern Europe, as well as some Caribbean islands, where they are introduced species. There are more than thirty species, ranging from one to four feet in length. Some species of mongooses lead predominantly solitary lives, seeking out food only for themselves, while others travel in groups, sharing food among the members of the group. Mongooses mostly feed on insects, crabs, earthworms, lizards, snakes, chickens, and rodents. However, they also eat eggs and carrion. Some species, such as the Indian Mongoose, are popularly used to fight and kill venomous snakes, even king cobras. They are able to do this because of their agility and cunning, and their thick coat, but typically avoid the cobra and have no particular affinity for consuming its meat.

Some species of mongoose are fairly intelligent and can be taught simple tricks, which has led to a number of them being domesticated, often kept as pets to control vermin. However, they can be more destructive than desired: when imported into the West Indies to kill rats and snakes, they destroyed most of the small, ground-based fauna. For this reason, it is illegal to import most species of mongoose into the United States, Australia and other countries. Mongooses were introduced to Hawaii in 1883, and have had a significant impact on native species.

The mongoose emits a high pitched noise, commonly known as giggling, when it mates. The giggling is also a form of courtship when this animal is choosing a mate.

Anatomy

Mongooses have long faces and bodies, small rounded ears, short legs, and long tapering tails. Most are brindled or grizzled; few have strongly marked coats. They have non-retractile claws that are used primarily for digging. Mongooses, much like goats, have narrow, ovular pupils. Most species have a large anal scent gland, used for scent marking of territories, and signalling reproductive status. The dental formula of mongooses is similar to that of viverrids:

Mongooses also have receptors for acetylcholine that, like the receptors in snakes, are shaped so that it is impossible for snake neurotoxin venom to attach to them. Research is being done to determine if similar mechanisms protect the mongoose from hemotoxic snake venoms.

Ecology

Behavioral ecology

The Egyptian Mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) is sometimes held as an example of a solitary mongoose, though it has been observed to work in groups also.

The Meerkat or Suricate (Suricata suricatta) lives in troops of 20 to 30 consisting of an alpha male and female, usually together with their siblings and offspring, in open country in Southern Africa (Angola, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa). The Meerkat is a small, diurnal mammal foraging for invertebrates in open country. Its behaviour and small size (it weighs less than one kilogram) makes it very vulnerable to larger carnivores and birds of prey. However, the Meerkat has been known to eat small birds that migrate through Southern Africa. To protect the foraging troops from predators, one Meerkat serves as a sentinel — climbing to an exposed vantage point and scanning the surroundings for danger. If the sentinel detects a predator it gives a loud alarm call to warn the troop and indicate if the threat comes from the air or the ground. If from the air, the meerkats rush as fast as they can to the nearest hole. If from the ground, the troop flees but not quite so fast as meerkats are more able to evade terrestrial predators than airborne raptors.

Relationship with humans

Mongooses are a common spectacle for road-side shows in India. Snake-charmers typically keep mongooses for mock fights with snakes. In Okinawa, there is a tourist attraction where a mongoose and a type of local venomous snake, the habu (one of various Trimeresurus species) are placed in a closed perimeter and allowed to fight, while spectators watch. However, due to pressure from animal rights activists, the spectacle is less common today.

In ancient Egypt according to the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1.35 & 1.87), native mongooses (Herpestes ichneumon) were venerated for their ability to handle venomous snakes and for their occasional diet of crocodile eggs.

Popular culture

The Rudyard Kipling fictional story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi features a pet mongoose that saves its human family from two deadly cobras. The story was later made into several films.

Colombian-born singer-songwriter Shakira named her 2003 world tour the Tour of the Mongoose because "the mongoose is basically one of the few animals who can defeat the most venomous snakes with just one bite. And that's why I decided to name my tour that way, because I think that if we all have a little mongoose inside that can defeat the hatred and the resentment and the prejudice of everyday, we can probably win the battle."

Taxonomy and classification

The mongooses belong to one of four families of terrestrial cat-like mammals descended from the viverravines, which were civet/genet-like mammals. The mongoose family is a close evolutionary relation of the family Viverridae and mongooses are sometimes classified as members of this family; however, mongooses have characteristic and distinguishing morphological and behavioural features though they do have the same basic dental formula as the viverrids.

In contrast to the arboreal, nocturnal viverrids, mongooses are more commonly terrestrial and many are active during the day. Most are solitary like the Egyptian Mongoose but a few, for example the Meerkat, have well-developed social systems.

Less diverse than the viverrids, the 30 species and 11 genera of African and Asian mongooses include the Cape Gray Mongoose, the Egyptian Mongoose and the Meerkat or Suricate.

Classification

Gallery

Bibliography

  • Anne Rasa: Mongoose Watch: A Family Observed. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday & Co., 1986
  • H.E. Hinton and A.M.S. Dunn: Mongooses: Their Natural History and Behaviour. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

References

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