Monday, June 20, 2011

Today a gerbil, tomorrow the world

The first time I saw mongooses out foraging I went into shock (well, that's a slight exaggeration).

It was back in 1995, and I was on holiday in Kruger National Park.
I'd stumbled on a group of about 25 banded mongooses and they were busily searching for dinner around my car. Each animal was scratching through the leaf litter, poking its nose into likely holes and raking around under fallen timber. Every now and again one would unearth a cricket or a juicy grub from a pile of dung or noisily crunch up a beetle.

Now this I was accustomed to.

I'd spent lots of time watching Australia's marsupial carnivores (e.g. quolls, dunnarts, antechinuses) and they obtain their takeaways in exactly the same way.

But what amazed me was that the mongooses totally ignored one another. Here they were trotting about, only a foot or two apart, burbling away companionably and moving along as a troop, but no one paid the slightest attention to what anyone else was eating!

Now if a family of quolls or a pair of dunnarts are out foraging and someone finds a tasty morsel, it's a free for all!
Everyone one dashes over and there's squeaking and brawling and utter fur-flying chaos. Heck, even dogs and cats will rush over to investigate if a companion makes a killing.

I guess, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been so shocked because flocks of birds hunt like this all the time, but mongooses have FUR for Heaven's sake!

An eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus). Quolls are Australia's best attempt at a mongoose; regrettably they're solitary and nocturnal.
Photo posted on Flickr by Shuttergirl3.

Sociality doesn't come easily to mongooses. Of the 37 species snooping about the world today, only eight (all African) have mastered the art of living together. You see mongooses are descended from a Christmas eve checkout queue of solitary, skulking killers and their physiques have remained unchanged for 30 million years.

But as the African climate dried out and savannah replaced forest, the mongooses – now perilously gadding about in the open – banded together so they'd always have someone to watch for predators. So, unlike other pack-living carnivores (such as wolves, lions or dholes), the mongooses ganged up to outsmart the beasts that ate them, rather than to up-size the beasts that they ate.

So while my little dwarf mongooses are now among the planet's most sophisticated socialites, at mealtimes their ancestral proclivity for independence shows through: everybody does their own thing, together.

Now I've explained all this, I'm going to contradict myself by describing the hour I spent with Ecthelion yesterday morning.
They were gerbil hunting - cooperatively.

I've only seen my mongooses behave this way a couple of times before, but it's always disconcerting. Their quarry, the local bushveld gerbils (Gerbilliscus leucogaster; you can see a photo of one here), live in big colonial warrens which they dig in sandy soil.
And yesterday morning, Merlin sniffed out an occupied warren. He immediately hollered for the group with a special rodent-hunting call (a bubbling, staccato version of their usual 'follow me' squeak) and the group came running. While Merlin and one or two others dug madly at the warren's main burrow entrances, everyone else milled about excitedly, watching and sniffing, pushing their noses down the many minor entrance holes, and peering under logs or into clumps of grass. They were all searching, impatiently, for any gerbil foolish enough to flee its underground home.

Putting in the spade work.

'We seek him here, we seek him there...'

Now this cooperative effort isn't exactly egalitarian because the group's reigning monarchs will filch the spoils from anyone who manages to bag a rodent. However, gerbils are big (about one-third the size of a mongoose, which makes the kill protracted, noisy and traumatic for soft-hearted observers), so lesser group members are usually able to snatch up some bloody, dismembered bits.
At the last hunt I witnessed, Koppiekats (a group of 18) snagged three of the five fleeing gerbils, and eight mongooses scrounged a meal.

The Lazy Mongoose's Guide to Gerbil Hunting.

Ecthelion's hunt wasn't successful (to my secret relief) as the gerbils refused to be flushed, and after three-quarters of an hour the 15 milling mouse-hunters were getting frustrated. Widening their search area brought them over to where I was sitting, with my backpack on the ground beside me. I should have foreseen this, but they began eyeing my bag speculatively, and I could see them thinking, 'Well if we can't find them anywhere else, they must be hiding in there'.

'"They must be in that bag..."

Soon half the group was lined up in front of me, glaring accusingly, convinced that I was harbouring their missing rodents. (Do they know me better than I realise?). Since I could think of no conceivable way to convince a group of mongooses that my backpack was gerbil-free, I shouldered the offending article and withdrew. They immediately called off their hunt ('Well, she's pinched the booty!') and headed off to forage normally.

"Gimme the gerbils!"

Now I know that dwarf mongooses hunting gerbils is not on a par with chimpanzees killing monkeys, but there's something worrying about these little creatures teaming up to bring down prey.
Sure, today it's just a few pesky gerbils, but where will this lead?
How long before I come across a felled duiker or a warthog nibbled off at the knees?
Come to think of it, aren't hyenas supposed to be descended from ancestral mongooses?
THAT'S where it will lead!

Just don't say I didn't warn you...


  1. wow. frightening. SUPER interesting AS ever.

    I must say that thoughts of animal rebellion have made me come up with my one and only plan if one of my cats becomes insane and a huge blurry ball of aggressive fury bent on my immediate-death-of-1,000-cuts destruction.

    And I've thought of this a bit (don't have to tell you the dark places biologists/realists go).

    Extract cat from face, and throw it against the wall, really hard.

    In all these years, I've still got nothin' else. They are SO fast and SO well armed and SO in-SANEly athletic (flying at and landing claws-out upon 6'tall-bb face is EASY), honestly don't think I'd have the mental where withal for anything more sophisticated. Certainly no time.

    hyenas--MAN those are some SCARY BEASTS! Girl power in the extreme!! yow. Cute mousie. LOVE your posts ALWAYS. So happy you are there and typing. =) A taking pictures!! =)

  2. MAN. I LOOKED it up and EVERYTHING. And then typed it wrong. "wherewithal" erg. pardon. =)

  3. What a facinating account of your mongoose group behavior ....

  4. You know, they've got their eye on your backpack. I think we can all work out what their next step might be ...

  5. Oh Lynda, gimme the mongooses!!!!
    They are utterly endearing in every way! The quolls as well, you made me to dig for more about them, fascinating little animals!
    As always I inhaled your article, and thank you so much for the beautiful new photos of the gorgeous dwarves, their accusing look is impressively visible, charms even more to them!

  6. Biobabbler,
    I sincerely hope your cats never rebel. Based on my experience, your cunning plan has a fatal flaw: 'extract cat from face'.
    Cat claws are designed to hook rather than scratch. I was attacked by one of my dying cats recently (while she was spaced out on a psychotic drug that was meant to stimulate her appetite) and I was entirely unable to prise her off my arm!

    Mongooses are super-fascinating little critters. Also frighteningly well-toothed...

    I was bitten by a pup today; is this an early warning sign? Are they developing a covert lust for human blood?? Perhaps I should start wearing gaiters and carrying a big stick...

    Quolls were my first love.
    As an undergraduate I used to scale a 10 foot fence each night to sneak into the Zoology Department compound to watch their captive quolls. During my third year I accidentally broke off the fence's overhang and the Department decided to give me a key!

  7. "quolls, dunnarts, antechinuses"...I refuse to believe that these are real creatures, regardless of whatever photographic evidence you provide...

    While I understand the dire warnings others are giving you, at least the mongoose are focused on your backpack. And why not? You're only observing them. Back when I was studying shore crabs, we used to joke about how the crabs that were returned would tell stories of alien abduction--being captured and subjected to bizarre experiemtents--and, as I walked the cobble beaches, I really began to feel the weight of all of those stalked eyes upon me. I had dreams of waking up tethered to the beach, Gulliver-among-the-Lilliputians style, feeling the prickle of sharp feet running over me as they contemplated their next move.

    - Olivia

  8. Olivia,
    I think you've given me nightmares with that image! Crabs just look so implacable, and the thought of all those little scratchy feet... urgh!


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