The joys and tribulations of a field biologist (and hermit) studying
mongooses in the South African bush.
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!
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.
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