Some mongoose species
Mongooses are African and Asian carnivores of the family Herpestidae. They are small, long, slender mammals, some of which are most widely known for their willingness and skill in attacking and killing poisonous snakes. In the past, members of the mongoose family have been included with the weasels (family Mustelidae), and sometimes the mongooses are included with civets and genets (family Viverridae).
The largest mongoose is the white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda) of southern Africa and Arabia. From head to tail, it is about 40 in (1 m) long and weighs about 9 lb (4 kg). Two species of dwarf mongooses (Helogale spp.) live in the savannas of the region around Ethiopia. They may be only one foot (30 cm) long, including the tail.
Mongooses tend to stand on their hind legs to survey their surroundings. They use their tails, which may be as thick at the base as their body, for balance. The front arms hang loosely as they look around.
Although they are carnivores, many mongooses also eat plants and fruit. Most, however, prefer meat in some variety, either insects, small reptiles, or small rodents and birds. They also eat birds' eggs when available, which they break by rolling them against rocks, usually backward between their legs. Marsh mongooses (Atilax paludinosus) of rivers in sub-Saharan Africa also break crab shells in the same way. One Asian species is so adept at eating crabs that it is called the crab-eating mongoose (Herpestes urva). Atilax will also eat crocodile eggs. Mongooses that kill snakes do so by wearing out the snake. They have great agility and energy and can keep going long after the snake is worn to exhaustion.
Most members of the mongoose family are solitary, living alone and usually hunting at night. Some, however, are quite colonial. Rarely would you see, for example, just one of the mongooses called meerkats standing alone. Instead, a whole row of these curious creatures will be standing on their hind legs, looking like 15 in (38-cm) tall, furry, scraggly little men guarding the openings to their rocky dens. The gray meerkat, also called the suricate (Suricata suricatta), lives in Angola, Namibia, and South Africa. It has distinct rings around its eyes. In the same region is the red meerkat, or yellow mongoose (Cynctis penicillata). Sometimes the two species will share burrows. Meerkats have frequently been tamed, and in captivity will eat a considerable amount of fruit.
Mongooses that live in colonies work together to defend themselves against a larger animal that may be attacking one of the group or trying to invade their den. Some of them, especially the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) of most of sub-Saharan Africa, also hunt in packs. While looking for the beetles they like, they communicate with continuous low-pitched calls. The banded mongoose is somewhat thicker through its striped body than most mongooses. All mongooses leave scented trails from glands on the cheeks and around the anus.
Among the solitary mongooses, a dominant male chooses the females he wants to mate with. The mothers then raise the babies by themselves. There is usually only one young at a time, though some species produce up to four. Most offspring are born blind and just lightly furred after a gestation period that varies from 6-17 weeks, depending on the species. Colony-living species, however, have a quite different child-care method. The care of the offspring is the joint responsibility of all the adults, which take turns babysitting while other members of the pack are out feeding. Successful hunters bring food back to the babies and may take time to play with them before going off again. The number of litters a mongoose might have each year depends on the weather and the food supply.
The most common mongoose is the small Indian mongoose (Herpestes javanicus). This animal is not only widespread in its own homeland, but it has been introduced to other places because of its skill at killing rats. It is now found in the West Indies and the Hawaiian Islands for that reason. However, these introduced mongooses cause great ecological damage, and are largely or partly responsible for the extinction or endangerment of numerous species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and small mammals.
The Liberian mongoose (Liberiictis kuhni) was not discovered by the outside world until 1958. At the time, it was a favorite food of native peoples in Liberia, in tropical western Africa. It has not been seen often since, and may be extinct.
There are four species (one each in four genera) of mongoose on the island of Madagascar, off eastern Africa. They are in a separate subfamily because they have a slightly different ear structure than the African and Asian species. They are also probably the only mongooses that live in pairs. One species, the ring-tailed mongoose (Galidia elegans) is more comfortable in trees than on the ground, although it also swims. Two species have more definite lengthwise stripes on them than other mongooses. The Malagasy narrow-striped mongoose (Mungotictis decemlineata) and Malagasy broad-striped mongoose (Galidictis fasciata) are striped in black and beige. The Madagascar mongooses are endangered species, mostly because of habitat loss and hunting.
Grzimek, H.C. Bernard, ed. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1993.
Schreiber, A., et al. Weasels, Civets, Mongooses and Their Relatives: An Action Plan for the conservation of Mustelids and Viverrids. Washington, DC: Island Press, 1989.
Jean F. Blashfield
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