Monday, April 26, 2010

Meet a mongoose: Baloo

One of the greatest joys of my research is getting to know individual animals, discovering their personalities and sharing in the day-to-day excitement of their lives. I thought I'd try to share this pleasure with you by introducing you to some of my special mongooses.

Today's 'focal animal' is Baloo.

When you visit Bugbears, it won't take you long to notice Baloo. A sleek youngster with an intense expression and greenish eyes (mongooses' eyes grow browner as they age), he'll come dashing up to stand by your feet. For a moment he'll stare intently into your eyes and then he'll race off, jinking past the more sedate members of the group. Baloo never walks when he can run. He's bursting with nervous energy and he always seems to be exuberantly enjoying life.

Baloo at four months of age.

Baloo was born last October just before I left for a holiday in Kanha National Park, India. This tropical forest was the setting for Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, so the choice of Baloo's name was obvious. In hindsight, I couldn't have chosen better because the little mongoose's personality bears a remarkable resemblance to that of the insouciant bear in Walt Disney's animated version (although I admit he doesn't sing or juggle mangos).

The drama in Baloo's life began early.
Iorek gave birth to Baloo's litter in a large termite mound overlooking the creek. Newborn pups (4 to 6 in a litter) are blind and helpless, and they normally spend their first few weeks hidden away in the depths of the mound. They're highly sought after by numerous predators so someone stays behind to guard them whenever the group goes off foraging. Babysitting is a hungry and dangerous job, so the mongooses take turns, normally for half a day at a time. If a predator turns up at the mound, the babysitter, with teeth bared and fur erect, blocks the entrance with its body and snaps, spits and growls ferociously. Unfortunately, some predators can't be deterred, and when the babysitter's own life is threatened (and it's not unusual for babysitters to be killed), it will snatch up one of the pups and make a run for it.
This is what happened to Bugbear's litter. I don't know which predator ate his siblings, but it was Baloo that drew the lucky straw.

 Mongoose pups (these are 3.5 weeks old) depend on the group for protection. Alone, they're an easy snack for raptors, snakes and monitors, wild cats, jackals, civets, honey badgers and even neighbouring mongoose groups.

Life as an 'only pup' comes with mixed blessings.
On the up-side, you never go hungry.
In the true spirit of 'all for one and one for all', subordinate female mongooses often produce milk to help feed the dominant female's pups. And dwarf mongooses don't have to get pregnant to do this, a trait unique among wild mammals. Female group members frequently undergo 'pseudo-pregnancy' in which they experience the physiological changes of pregnancy (including milk production) even though they haven't actually conceived. So Baloo not only got to guzzle a whole litter's worth of milk from his mum, but could then totter across and snack from Cricket and Rupert as well. (No, Rupert isn't male; even dwarf mongooses aren't that good. What can I say? Pups are difficult to sex.). Anyway, Baloo had a bonanza, and he grew so fat and roly-poly that I wondered how his stumpy legs could support him.

On the down-side, 'only pups' don't get to lie in bed all day. Babysitting isn't only dangerous, it's energetically costly. For example, in meerkats (who have a very similar social system), babysitters can lose up to 11% of their body weight during the four-week pup-minding period. Understandably, Bugbears was hesitant to invest such a lot in just a single pup. Their solution? They carried Baloo with them wherever they went.

Mongoose carrying a pup (sorry for lousy quality).

Every day the tiny pup, bumbling about with his eyes barely open, was dragged off through thorn thickets and bumped over rocks. His neck fur was constantly matted with saliva and he looked like he had mange from all the scrapes and scratches. Whenever the group settled to forage, they'd stow Baloo beneath a rock or shove him into a rotting log, before wandering off to search for food nearby. Of course, mongooses are highly attuned to pup distress calls, and they'll come at gallop for the slightest peep, but Baloo got so used to being left alone, he never cried out (as pups normally do) even when the group moved far away. I feared that this would prove fatal. Whenever the group moved on, I'd hold my breath: would they remember Baloo? Often they'd move quite a long way before someone, usually one of the females, would suddenly stop in her tracks and dash back to snatch him up. I was convinced, each time I visited the group, that I'd find him missing; it seemed inevitable that a predator would find him in his makeshift shelters, or the group would - one day - leave him behind.

But I was wrong. Despite his many abrasions, Baloo thrived. Having no littermates to play with could have been a hardship, but not for Baloo. Leaping on the adults, he'd drape his body across their shoulders, biting on their ears, or pounce on their heads, to hang by his teeth from their noses (watching it made my eyes water).
Now Baloo is six months old, and he's slimmed down a lot (he has to catch his own food!). However, I think his early initiation into group life has given him his bouncy self-assurance and a great enthusiasm for everything and anything that's going on.


  1. Henry,
    I'm always pleased when someone finds mongooses fascinating... or cute... or appealing... or diabolically clever... Not that I'm biased in any way.

  2. This is truly rich material; I love reading researcher's field notes and finding engrossing anecdotes like Baloo's. His group's decision-making process about how to care for one pup versus a whole litter is intriguing, it's like there was an informal cost-benefit analysis about using a babysitter or not.

  3. Sciencetrio,
    Yes, you're right about the cost-benefit analysis. I think animals that live in cooperative groups are constantly having to weigh up how much their 'altruism' will cost them and whether it's worth it.
    I guess it should be 'all-for-one-and-one-for-all,-up-to-a-point'.


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