The joys and tribulations of a field biologist (and hermit) studying
mongooses in the South African bush.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
A star by name and nature
I just realised that I haven't written about mongooses yet; most remiss!
My inaugural mongoose post is about the 'cover-mongoose' of this blog site (the bigger animal on the left of the blog-title photo). Orion (or KM002, to give him his proper title) is the dominant male of Koppiekats group, and I've been working with him for the last four years.
Dwarf mongooses are Africa's smallest carnivore (I like saying that – it somehow puts them on a par with lions, etc.). They live in close-knit groups of around 6-20 individuals, and are a highly cooperative lot (not toward me unfortunately, just each other) with everyone helping to rear the group's pups and protect one another from predators and rivals. Orion, like all alpha males, takes his social responsibilities very seriously. It's Orion who intervenes when the youngsters' spats grow too rough; Orion who leads the group away when someone scents a black mamba; Orion who spends hours perched high in a tree, or teetering atop a boulder, scanning for predators while everyone else forages.
Of course, he's got reason for such dedication: dominant male dwarf mongooses father about 80% of the group's pups, so Koppiekats is comprised, almost entirely, of his progeny. Still, there are times when he seems to go above-and-beyond the call of duty.
During my first summer, I was watching Koppiekats move their two-week-old pups between refuges (disused termite mounds). This is a noisy, protracted affair with everyone calling and dashing back and forth excitedly. The pups curl themselves into black, walnut-sized balls, and hang placidly from the adult's mouths as they are hauled over rocks and through thickets of grass and thorns. In the midst of all the confusion, a piercing alarm call rang out. Everyone madly dashed for cover as an African hawk eagle (their most feared predator) swooped overhead. Amethyst – Koppiekat's dominant female – was crossing a huge open rock face, and she instantly dropped the pup she was carrying and fled to cover. For a moment or two, there was complete silence; everyone was hidden. The eagle cruised low. The pup, lying exposed, way out in the open, started looking about groggily and was beginning to realise that it was on its own. It hadn't even opened its mouth to begin to wail, when a black streak came dashing out of the vegetation about 30m away. It raced at full gallop right across the group, hurtled over the open rock face, snatched up the pup as it raced by, and then disappeared back to safety. Naturally, it was Orion.
Koppiekats are named after the koppies on which they live.
Having spent 16 years living in remote places in the African bush studying the social behaviour of mongooses, my own is non-existent. I survived 8 years in the desert, at the Kalahari Meerkat Research Project (i.e. Meerkat Manor), and am now doing research on dwarf mongooses in the lowveld of NE South Africa.
If you come across a mistake on this blog, please let me know. I really want to learn new things, and to get them right!
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