Monday, May 10, 2010

Big, banded and bolshie

Yesterday while walking the dogs, I ran into a group of banded mongooses.

Six times larger than my dwarf mongooses, banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) remind me more of little dogs (dachshunds or terriers) than mongooses. So imagine 28 small dogs milling about excitedly together, and you've got a pretty good picture of what we met yesterday.

Seeing banded mongooses is a real treat. They're rare here, preferring to live in wetter, more densely vegetated areas.
This photo is from the BBC's new four-part series: Banded Brothers.

The group was trotting along with the local troop of baboons and a sounder of warthogs. Like dwarf mongooses, bandeds understand the value of foraging with other species: more eyes to watch for danger and a reduced chance of being chosen if a predator does strike.

But warthogs? Baboons??

Both these species are very partial to fresh meat, and viciously tear apart small, innocent animals whenever the chance arises. You wouldn't catch a dwarf mongoose setting paw anywhere near one of these hardened opportunists. Banded mongooses might be larger, but they're still small enough to wind up as lunch.

A young banded mongoose. Photo taken by Mike Fisher and borrowed from here.

However, banded mongooses have a secret weapon. When threatened, they adopt a special battle formation. Clustering closely together into a phalanx, the mongooses charge at their quarry. Within the tight formation, each individual writhes and rears up and down so that, together, they look like one large and very threatening animal. The whole scary performance is topped off by an array of alarming sound effects: churring, growling, spitting and snapping. And let me tell you, it is VERY intimidating.

Once I was watching a group of banded mongooses foraging with baboons near Lower Sabie in Kruger National Park. It was a beautiful golden morning, and everyone was peacefully going about their own business. The baboons were sitting in pairs and trios grooming one another, while their youngsters romped in play, and the mongooses were trotting about scratching in the leaf litter for bugs. No one was taking the slightest notice of anyone else. The scene was so lovely and tranquil, I started feeling sleepy.
And then an adolescent male baboon sauntered past. He didn't approach the mongooses (many baboons were nearer); he didn't even glance at the mongooses. But he had a certain, 'I'm not the least bit interested in mongooses' look. If he'd been human, he'd have been standing with his hands behind his back, staring at the sky, whistling. The mongooses reacted instantly. In an eye-blink, the dispersed group members converged into a single snarling mass that hurtled toward the young male. The baboons leapt to their feet, screaming and barking in alarm, and fleeing in all directions. And the great undulating 'MONGOOSE' charged off in pursuit of the terrified adolescent. Within seconds I was completely alone. I could just hear distant alarm barks of the widely scattered baboons. But my heart was pounding from the sudden, unexpected violence of it all.

The banded mongooses at Mweya Peninsula in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, have gone one step further in cultivating intimacy with other species. Here the mongooses have adopted the role of furry ox-peckers, enthusiastically removing ticks from the local warthogs. Click here to see a video clip of this extraordinary behaviour.
I have to admit, I wouldn't trust any mongoose to do this!


  1. This is a fascinating post Lynda. I had to smile at the visual of the baboon walking and whistling. LOL!!! It is amazing how fast they can scatter and disappear like that. :)

    Do you mind if I ask you questions? In hope that the answer is 'no', here it is: Are there territorial fights between the species, for example the Dwarf and the Banded over burrows?

    That is an extraordinary video and I too have learnt to expect behaviour which is not normal from most animals. Did you see the link I had to the photographs of the lion with the fetus?

    I notice also that you do not publish any of your own photographs? Do you not take any? I am sure you must have lots. :)

    Please feel free not to answer any questions I have. I won't be offended as I do respect privacy but this (me) is one curious old lady!! :)

  2. I wonder what would happen if some intrepid would-be intimidatee stood its ground? Would the mongooses turn tail or carry out the threat? (I am not volunteering!)

  3. Maybe that warthog in the video was raised by mongooses. He is certainly well trained. What do you think?

  4. Joan,
    I'm delighted that you ask questions!

    Territorial fights between mongooses only really occur between members of the same species. Dwarfs and Bandeds don't argue over burrows because they need such different-sized holes. Dwarfs almost always kip in the ventilation shafts of old termite mounds while Bandeds prefer hollows under rocks, debris or fallen timber. The ones in the video also sleep the night under fishing boats that are left upturned on the lake shore (a bit of a shock for any early-rising fisherman).

    I'm afraid I didn't see your link to the lion and foetus; where should I look?

    With regards to the photos, I've decided to write about that as a post, which I'll (hopefully!) publish soon.

  5. Snail,
    I'm afraid I don't know (oh, such shameful ignorance).
    Mongoose teeth are formidable, so I expect they'd go the whole nine yards. My dwarf mongooses certainly don't hold back when a 'mobbee' fails to run, but that's like comparing the behaviour of a street gang with that of a Roman legion.
    I'll see if I can track down a (surviving) eye-witness.

  6. Jane,
    Are you suggesting that mongooses indulge in hog-napping??
    Maybe this is why they sleep under boats, to squeeze in those extra piglets.
    My internet connection is too poor for video viewing, but was the warthog eating bugs? This would be telling evidence.

  7. Hi Snail/Lynda,
    As a surviving eye-witness of a few banded mongoose mobbing bouts I can tell you that the best strategy is always to defer to the mongooses. Having worked amongst them for a few years in Uganda, I've had the opportunity to watch from a respectful distance (post-retreat!) as others (usually tourists around the local lodge) briefly stand their ground. A swarming, 'churring', spitting mass of mongooses quickly forms, and multiple mongoose teeth soon send sandal-adorned feet back on safari! Banded mongooses almost always get their way, and it's usually advisable to get out of it!
    Fantastic blog Lynda- I am getting 'home' sick! NJ

  8. Thanks for the great info Lynda. Yes, I would think that the fisherman would get a lovely surprise!! :)

    Neil: I am surprised at your piece on the mobbing as I have never seen it myself. For example in St Lucia, there are a lot of them around the camping grounds as they scrounge for food but I have never seen or heard of one biting a human. I wonder if this habit was just that particular band of mongoose?

  9. Neil,
    Thanks for the info. It makes me appreciate my sweet-tempered little dwarfs even more.

    I think you don't see such things in South Africa parks because any animal that behaves like that here is very quickly a dead animal.

  10. What a neat defense behavior! How do they communicate with each other so that they know to group together en masse into a "super mongoose"?

  11. DeLene,
    They give special 'worry calls' that bring other group members running. When mobbing, these recruitment calls are usually combined with the appropriate predator alarm call.

    All the social mongooses (including meerkats)use a whole array of different 'functionally referential' alarms calls that indicate whether the predator is on the ground or in the air, and just how much of a danger it is to the group.
    Are you converted from wolves yet??

  12. Thanks for the info about the alarm calls. Dunno why I'm surprised there is a different call for aerial and ground predators, but I am! I wouldn't say I'm "converted" (wolves just happen to be what I've read about the most) but they sure are cute research subjects and I'm enjoying reading your posts to learn more about them. :-)


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