Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A festivity of pups

One.... two, three....
Crouched in the dappled shade of a marula tree, I was counting pups.
Not pups of the canine persuasion; mongoose pups.
Now this was no easy feat because they were passing me at speed, curled into walnut-sized balls within the mouths of their caregivers.

Four... five...
Number five was having a rough ride, dragged along enthusiastically by nine-month-old Echo. Despite pointing his nose skyward and waddling on tiptoes, he simply wasn’t tall enough to lift his cargo clear of snags.
Oh, wait a minute, there’s one being carried back again...
Back to five...

Koppiekats group was shifting its week-old pups to a new termite mound and it was my one chance to figure out how many there were.
Frenzied excitement gripped the group as mongooses dashed back and forth; some carrying pups, some not. Calling anxiously to one another, and with agitation-fluffed fur, some individuals raced ahead to check the safety of the new mound while others ran helter-skelter back to huddle the last nest-bound pups. Meanwhile the pup-carriers hurried on past, self-importantly announcing their passage with uninterrupted, high-pitched peeps (‘clear the way, pup coming through’). And the little ones - although tiny, black-fuzzed and blind - gave ear-piercing squawks whenever they were unceremoniously dumped beneath tussock or log.

Six... seven...

No wonder the group was so excited.
Four is the normal size of a dwarf mongoose litter.
So how did Koppiekats end up with eight?

Koppiekats’ most recent progeny, venturing out at four weeks old. Pups stay snugged away inside a termite mound for their first three weeks of life, coddled and guarded by babysitters. With so many little ones, Koppiekats felt the responsibility keenly, usually leaving behind two or three minders.

As you probably know, dwarf mongooses - like their celebrated cousins the meerkats – are the living embodiment of the Musketeers’ motto. Dedicated to the ‘all-for-one and one-for-all’ maxim, group members team up to harry snakes, evict trespassers and warn one another of incoming raptors. With heroic selflessness, they forfeit their own romantic aspirations to devotedly care for the offspring of their group’s sovereigns. It’s all heart-warmingly altruistic.
In theory.
In reality, the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting are not quite so chaste. These heirs apparent (sisters and grown daughters of the Queen) are not above indulging in a little hanky-panky. And when the inevitable happens, they try to hush it up by smuggling the consequences into the royal nursery.

To help perpetuate the hoax, they give birth on the same day as the monarch. I don’t know how they manage this because the courtiers normally mate a day or two after the Queen. But when royalty decrees, loyal subjects follow, ready or not. It looks as if the illegitimate pups are simply borne a little premature (they’re smaller and have shorter fur). Even courtiers who are only ‘a bit pregnant’ honour the auspicious day, aborting their litters and discreetly nibbling up the tiny pink foetuses.

When spring is in the air, the ladies of the court don’t seem to be able to say ‘No’, and the sovereign is rarely alone when she delivers the first litter of the summer. This is Cricket, an errant Princess in Bugbears, awaiting the big day.

So what’s the fate of these illegitimate ankle-biters?
Well that’s in the paws of the Queen.
Normally they’re doomed.
Her Majesty swiftly transforms them into a restorative post-partum snack and the bereaved mums then act as wet-nurses for the rightful heirs. Fortunately (from my perspective) dwarf mongooses don’t believe in airing their dirty laundry in public so all I see of the nefarious deed is a bulging tummy and blood-smeared chin. Not so meerkats, who enact a horrifying spectacle in which the whole group tussles over the gory remains.

However, occasionally, if food is plentiful, the Queen grants a stay of execution. A genetic study of Serengeti’s dwarf mongooses found that 18% of pups reared by the group are the progeny of lesser females. Although the rulers of my other study groups were merciless this year, Pleiades, the sovereign of Koppiekats, opted for clemency. So some of the pups that just passed me are actually Pleiades’ nieces, nephews or grandkids.

The brood at six weeks. Notice the size difference between the legitimate pups (on the left) and the little interloper on the right. Yes, there is a question mark over his head: I don’t know who his mum is (because three courtiers - Spark, Helium and Mercury – were in the family way).

But even if they escape the death sentence at birth, illegitimate pups aren’t out of the woods. They face a second test. And it is this that has made me apprehensive every time I've visited Koppiekats.

You see at one month old, mongoose pups begin tagging along on the group’s daily foraging jaunts. Chivvied, cajoled and carried, the little ones are tended constantly. Carefully lodged under a log or boulder, the pups are then presented with half-chewed creepy-crawlies by doting group members.
But when the pups hit five weeks old, this mollycoddling stops. Although everyone still feeds them (and will do so for another five weeks), the youngsters are expected to look out for themselves. If the group runs, so must they. It doesn’t matter how far, or how fast; they must keep up. So if any pup is below par (debilitated from want of food, illness or underdevelopment), they’re simply left behind.

Although I loathe this phase of mongoose-rearing, it serves the mongooses well, ensuring that they channel their efforts only into the healthiest pups.
And I’m very relieved to report that all but one of the little Koppiekats pups managed to pass this trial. Aided and abetted by a timely glut of beetle lava, seven of the roly-poly little creatures live to tell the tale. In fact they’re doing so well, they spend most of their time playing rather than trying to cadge food from their betters.

Shell games.

Leaf games.

Bite-brother games.

If you were wondering, no-one left these pups out in the rain. The rusty patches on their fur are from daubs of ‘Camomile’ blonde hair dye (so I can tell who’s who).

Born on 31 Oct, the Koppiekat pups remain unnamed. I’m trying to come up with Halloween-appropriate monikers, but they also need to be associated with minerals (as in Twenty Questions). Darkness, maybe? Sulphur? Or Silver (for the bullets needed to pot vampires)? Any suggestions gratefully received!

I almost forgot.


  1. Fascinating!
    I'll do some thinking to see if I can come up with an appropriate name suggestion... would be so fun to contribute to naming a mongoose!

    Merry Christmas!

  2. Would Skeleton be considered animal or mineral? How about Scarecrow? Blue Moon or Full moon ought to count as mineral. Great post, very informative like always.

  3. And a very merry (in American) Christmas to you! (And to the seven surviving pups!) Thanks for reminding us, in this and your last post, about the somewhat chilling nature of nature... I also like that one of this post's labels is "cooperative breeding," which like so many terms in animal behavior has a certain ironic edge...

    As for names, what about: porphyry, bloodstone (green jasper with red spots of iron oxide), or serpentine?

  4. PS - I love that you began the section describing these critters' breeding habits with "As you probably know..." Whether tongue-in-cheek or not, I love that assumption of biological erudition in your readers!

  5. yeah ... as I probably did not know. Great information and cute pictures. Are you doing any DNA testing in your studies?

  6. Happy New Year everyone! Sorry for the delay in responding (as if it's unusual). At least I have an excuse this time: I've been moving house. Again (urgh!).

    I'm glad you're fascinated by my marvellous mini-mongooses (always a pleasure when someone thinks your study species is as interesting as you do!).

    Skeleton and scarecrow are definitely not mineral in origin (unless you cheat at Twenty Questions). The Moon names are good. I've also been toying with Twilight (due to it's vampire connotations) but it seems a bit twee for a mongoose.

    Thank you for the great name suggestions. I'll certainly use Porphyry. I'll send you updates on his progress if you like (be prepared: about one-third of pups get munched by predators!).

    We did attempt to analyse the DNA of my study population, but we extracted it from the mongooses' poop (which tends to be poor quality in carnivores; the DNA not the poop). Unfortunately, we weren't able to get sufficient detail to figure out who sprang from the loins of who.

  7. I have been following your blog for awhile, but have yet to comment. These little guys are so cute, it is impossible not to say so. They are so animated and almost a little devilish. I photograph a lot of animals, but never even saw a mongoose, even in a zoo.

  8. Gardenwalkgardentalk,
    Nice to hear from you. I'm sorry you haven't had the pleasure of meeting a mongoose in the fur. I'm sure they're the inspiration for all those mischievous forest spirits and sprites that abound in fairytales and folklore.


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