Friday, July 19, 2013

Dwarf mongooses: warts and all

After seven and a half years working with dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula), today I discovered the meaning of their scientific name.
And I’m outraged!

Their dreadful scientific moniker was bestowed upon them back in 1847 by Carl Jacob Sundevall. Dr Sundevall was a Swedish ornithologist (yes, that’s right, ornithologist) who was working as curator of the Natural History Museum of Stockholm at the time of his ghastly misjudgement.

The culprit. Image from Wikipedia.

Now let’s be clear. I have nothing against Sundevall’s choice of a species name, parvula.

In Latin parv means little, and ula is a diminutive form; so that’s little, little.
And there’s no question that dwarf mongooses are wee. Even at the height of summer when they’re at their chubbiest, adults clock in at only 270-300g (10 oz). They’re not only the teeniest of the globe’s 31 mongoose species (they’re only one-third the size of meerkats, for example), they’re also Africa’s most petite carnivore.

Chimera (EM061) and Doxy (EM066) helping me to document their littleness.

No, no, it’s the genus name, Helogale, that I have problems with.
In Latin gale means weasel.
Mongooses are NOT weasels.
Mongooses do not even belong to the weasel family (the pesky mustelids).
Heck, they don’t even like weasels!

If the mongooses held a family reunion, you’d see genets and aardwolves, linsangs and banded palm civets. There’d be hyenas, overseeing the braai (BBQ), and civets griping endlessly about the perfume industry. The binturong would be annoying everyone by picking up party nibbles with its tail, and the toddy cat, who’s had too much to drink (again), would be delighting the kids with unsavoury re-enactments of kopi luwak manufacture. Even the Madagascan contingent would be there: the falanouc pontificating about earthworms with the white-tailed mongoose, and the fossas and meerkats locked in heated debate over media bias.


Even when the distant cousins rocked up (oh you know, those weirdoes who lost touch eons ago), you wouldn’t see a single weasel. Oh yes, amid the fake smiles and cries of ‘pull up a pew’, you’d spy tigers and ocelots, jaguarondis and cheetahs, clouded leopards and (oh my god) a very obese Persian.


This is the only weasel to sully the lands south of the Sahara. When threatened, striped weasels (Poecilogale albinucha ) squirt stinking anal-gland secretions for a distance of 1 metre/yard. This is one of the many traits they do NOT share with mongooses.
Photo from Wikipedia.  

I’m willing to concede that weasels and mongooses do show some (superficial) likenesses. I can understand that a person who spends all their days mulling over dead bodies (and probably has seasonal affective disorder too) could consider these similarities noteworthy.
Yes - if I must - I can cope with gale.

But I cannot accept Helo.
Carl Sundervall what were you thinking??

So what does the dwarf mongooses’ scientific name actually mean?


Does this look like a LITTLE WART WEASEL to you?
(This is a rhetorical question. Any reader veering toward the affirmative is strongly advised not to leave a comment.)

 Now Carl Sundervall didn’t actually see a living, breathing (and biting) dwarf mongoose. He described the species from a cadaver sent to him by another Swede, Johan August Wahlberg. Back in the 1840s, Johan Wahlberg toured the length and breadth of South Africa shooting things collecting specimens. Dwarf mongooses were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. A vast mountain of carcasses (of mammal, bird and reptile species) were then shipped back to lucky old Stockholm.
So could it have been gun-happy Johan who was responsible for this dreadful naming travesty? Did he fail to treat the limp little body with sufficent reverence (and preservative)? Was the scrap of lifeless fur that Carl Sundervall lifted from the packing crate pocked with wart-like decay?

Is there an excuse for the inexcusable?

Another victim of Johan Wahlberg’s shooting spree. To add insult to (mortal) injury, this victim got landed with the perpetrator’s name: Wahlberg’s eagle (Aquilla wahlbergi). I guess things can always be worse. Photo by Arno Meintjes.

Now I realise that once a species is officially described and named, its scientific moniker cannot be changed. But surely Anagalligale parvula (delightful little weasel) or Dulcigale parvula (sweet little weasel) or even Maxigale parvula (greatest little weasel), would have been preferable.

Maybe I can just sneak in a different name as a typo...

Dwarf mongooses (Calligale parvula) enjoying a family moment. Ah, beautiful little weasels...

 P.S. Johan Wahlberg was ultimately killed by an elephant. Hee hee.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Intruder rampant

Last night I was victim to a ‘break and enter’.
Although (to be honest) ‘enter and break’ would be more apt.

It was 2 am when I was flung from sleep by a loud, tinkling crash coming from the kitchen. A quick head count revealed that all my pets – now struggling groggily to their paws – were with me in the bedroom.
There was an intruder in the house.

Snatching up my bedside torch, I and the pets (two huskies and a cat) stumbled drowsily toward the noise.
Now call me unwise, but it never occurred to me that the intruder might be human. From the china-shattering sound effects, I knew someone had knocked over the dishes I’d left teetering on the sink (for security purposes only, of course). This suggested an arboreal offender, and my sleep-clogged brain was shuffling inefficiently through alternatives... a bush baby, maybe?
Hopefully, NOT a leopard.

I snapped on the kitchen light and all Hell broke loose.
Instantly a slim, cat-sized creature was hurtling around the room, bouncing off the walls, the fridge-top, the sink, the cupboard. Every gargantuan leap was accompanied by a cacophony of breakages as jars, pans, egg cartons, canisters and plates crashed to the floor (not that my kitchen is untidy, of course). My dog Magic leapt after the frightened animal, knocking over the garbage can and bounding through the broken crockery and glass. Over and above this chaos there arose a burgeoning stench: acrid, sweet and musky.
With everything happening so quickly, and the animal moving so fast, I couldn’t get a good look at it. My only impression was of a long, ringed tail.
Ahh, a genet.

Now genets are very special animals. Of all the carnivores pussyfooting about the globe today, genets are the ones most closely resembling the ancient grand-pappy of the whole toothy mob (a little miacid who hunted 50 million years ago). In fact, the genet’s teeth and skeleton have barely changed since way back then. This isn’t to say that genets are primitive; they’re simply traditionalists who like to do things the way their mammies’ did.
They’re also amazingly beautiful.
Clothed in the softest, pale silver fur, they’re brushed with delicate streaks of inky droplets. A trim of silky black fur crests along their spines, and their long, long tails - the ultimate accessory - are shockingly aposematic, ringed spectacularly in white and black.

The small spotted genet (Genetta felina) is one of ten species that haunt the African night. Their nearest and dearest are the civets, linsangs and mongooses (so how could they not be charming?).
Photo by Fredric Salein.

My intruder hurtled through the kitchen doorway and circumnavigated the lounge room in seconds by ricocheting off the walls. Leaping at the French windows, it slid spread-eagled down the glass, Sylvester-like, its claws screeching all the way. Magic (who’s mania for hunting ratchets into insanity in the presence of a small carnivore) saw this as her big chance and plunged across the room. I pelted after her in a valiant attempt to avert certain carnage. But I’d underestimated the genet. Touching ground, it instantly sprang again, bouncing off the top of Wizard’s head and disappearing into the bedroom.

Genets, like cats, have sharp, retractile claws that let them climb and snare small beasts efficiently. Their paws also have 5 toes (cats and dogs have 4).
Photo by David Bygot.

By this stage the musky fetor was almost making my eyes water. You see genets are masters in the art of perfumery. As professional serial killers, they favour a solitary lifestyle and operate only under the cover of darkness. This makes conversing with lovers and rivals challenging. Yet with typical mammalian ingenuity, they’ve hit on a solution: they leave little aromatic messages that convey their identity, sexual orientation and level of libido.
While most carnivores make do with bog-standard anal glands - brimful with pungent bacteria - (this, by the way, includes your sweet little cat and dog), genets brandish a perineal gland too (a little slit located between their anus and their naughty bits). When marking is imminent, muscles pull open this innocuous looking slit to expose an inbuilt paintbrush of fine white hairs oozing a clear oily emulsion. As if this isn’t scary enough, the animal then uses acrobatics to apply the malodorous stuff. Backing up to an object, it flings its hind legs up over its back and teeters around on its forepaws (in a perfect handstand) to smear the goo, back and forth, as high as genetly possible. (Okay, my dwarf mongooses also indulge in handstanding, but I’m sure they’re much more mannerly).

Oh, and I forgot to mention that when genets get anxious they release every possible excretion.

Genets munch any small critters they can lay their paws on, from bugs to duiker lambs. They’re also partial to fruit and nectar.
Photo by Isidro Martinez.

When I followed the procession of animals into the bedroom, I found Magic trampolining on the bed in an attempt to reach the genet, who was scrabbling up the wardrobe. Launching a flying tackle, I pinned the dog to the mattress with my body, and everything fell still. Panting quietly, we all took stock. The genet stood frozen on top of the dresser, one forepaw raised and nose uplifted like a wondrous heraldic beast (argent genet passant).

Unfortunately, I was so busy devising an escape plan for the frightened creature, I forgot to check out its tail. Now this may seem an understandable oversight but two genet species lurk around here, and they’re not easy to tell apart. The tail of the large spotted genet (Genetta tigrina) sports a black tip, while the small spotted genet’s (Genetta felina) tail usually concludes in white (I’m sure you’ve noticed the flaw in this masterly technique). Unfortunately, the whole ‘large’ and ‘small’ business is a red herring (to confuse newbies); it refers to the spots not the beasts.

Large spotted genets (Genetta tigrina) are found in the moister bits of southern Africa. Their spots are rust-coloured and ringed in black rather than being charcoal (hmm, a bit subtle...).
Photo posted on Flickr by West Chester Dumonts.

Common or European genets (Genetta genetta) are the only species to venture beyond Africa (they also prowl the Middle East and southern Europe). However, it’s uncertain whether they were introduced to Europe (by the Moors to Spain) as they were routinely kept as mousers throughout the Middle Ages (before cats got popular). Photo by Ricardo Sanchez.

After careful thought, I concluded the best way to help my nameless genet was to neutralise Magic. I wasn’t worried about Wizard: he’s not much of a hunter and he was still recovering from the whole head-bouncing incident. While I dragged a whimpering Magic off to the bathroom, the genet quietly slipped back into the lounge room and escaped out the window. 

Now I’m just left with a complete ruin of a kitchen and an overpowering stench.
It’s not entirely unpleasant, but... er... very animally!

This image is for those of us who secretly suffer tail-envy. Presumably it’s of Mum and the kids (but there seem too many). Maybe - like other solitary mammals - small spotted genets are willing to bend the rules when food is bounteous.
Photo by David Bygott.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Communiqué from a hermit


That’s an apology for my appalling lack of posts.

Yes relatives, I am still alive.

The problem is (okay, one of the problems is) I’m now living in a spot unsullied by modern communications.
Yet hope’s recently arrived in the form of a laptop. If I drive half a dozen kilometres, clamber to the top of a wind-whipped kopje and sit numb-bottomed and squint-eyed (playing spot the cursor), I can communicate with the outside world.
But not very much.
You see my funding ran out last year so I’m trying to survive on... well, nothing at all really. And petrol and internet access are costly. Nevertheless, despite these adversities, I bring you a blog post! 

My latest domicile is tucked away beside the river in the reserve in which I potter with mongooses work. I moved in last March and have fallen in love with the place because my neighbours are all non-human.

Uninhabited (theoretically) for the last seven years, the house harbours an impressive assemblage of fauna. Fortunately the hippos and hyenas - whose dawn chorus ushers in my days - tend to stay outside, but others are less reticent. Jealously I guard my dogs from the leopards who stamp their pugmarks on my driveway nightly, and struggle (vainly) to oust the bloom-devouring porcupines from the garden. Ah, bliss...


Chez Mongoose (mainly)

The charming Oliphants River as viewed from my veranda.

Of course, adjusting to the idiosyncrasies of new housemates can be challenging. And some are far from pleased to see me. The incumbent geckos, for example, are the least friendly I’ve ever encountered. They lurk furtively in crevices and crannies, secretly plotting my downfall. Only if I arrive home after nightfall and unexpectedly snap on the light, do I get to see them, frozen guiltily and bristling with insurgency, up there on the walls.

The most welcoming of my new roomies spends much of her time in the kitchen (and sadly has a figure to match). You can usually find her lounging on the bench top beneath the window. Dressed with classic elegance in umber, bistre and pearl, she emanates a proprietorial air but graciously lets me share the facilities. Admittedly she’s only six inches (15 cm) long, but for a striped skink (Tachylepsis striata) this is not to be sniffed at. I have presumptuously christened her Algernon. (I should point out at this stage that although my zoological expertise is profound (naturally), it does not extend to sexing small lizards (well, any lizards at all really); hence the gender-related ambiguity.) 

Embarking on a staring contest with a striped skink (Trachylepis striata) is ill advised. Okay, unlike some reptiles, they do actually blink. But their lower eye lids have a transparent window so that glare never falters.

As might be expected, there was a little friction between us at first. Algernon’s insistence on spending the night tucked up in the egg carton led to heart-stopping encounters every morning. After ten days I finally realised that – in my early morning daze - I was incapable of remembering she was there, and so I hid the eggs away in a cupboard. She ruefully shifted into the washing machine. Of course now I can’t launder my clothes before 11 am (she’s a late riser on these chilly mornings) but we all have to make compromises.

As a striped skink (Trachylepis striata), Algernon is meant to live in trees. The soles of her feet have built-in cleats (special spiny scales) and each absurdly elongated toe sports a bark-catching keel. Unfortunately, these nifty adaptations are less well suited to kitchen fly screens. You see striped skinks are active hunters and - according to the books – they seize their insect prey after a short, fast dash. However, when Algernon is hunting flies on the window screen, her dashes - back and forth, up and down, round and round - are annoyingly protracted. With each step, her impressive grappling-iron toes snare the mesh, so she has to fling her limbs into the air like she’s practising semaphore. As inconvenient as this may be for Algernon, it’s worse for me: each unplucked toe produces a dreadful reverberating clatter that’s audible throughout the house.
Still a girl has to eat; I show forbearance.

Algernon showing off her fine toes and svelte figure.

Our relationship has grown considerably more cordial since Algernon discovered the delights of mealworms. Each day she greets me upon my return from the field, skittering across the counter top to stand gazing up at me in the hopes of cadging any leftover worms. (Yes, that soft susurrus was a gasp of outrage by my mongooses.) After hours basking on the window sill, Algernon moves quicker than the eye can see. I find this unexpectedly disturbing. I mean we’re all used to small critters flitting out of sight in the blink of an eye, but when one flits AT you, it’s a different story entirely. One moment she’s sitting peaceably on the counter top and the next she’s crouched on my wrist, glaring at me fiercely for failing to unhand the mealworm. As far as I’m concerned, teleporting lizards should stay firmly in the realm of science fiction.

I was wondering whether to teach Algernon tricks (is this demeaning?). But what’s the point of a lizard that jumps through a hoop if you can’t see it do it??

Now the advantage of living on the window sill (apart from the whole fly-catching business) is that Algernon can zip back and forth through the gap in the screen whenever danger threatens. The down side - at least from my perspective - is that those with an appetite for striped skinks sometimes pursue her right into the house. So far I’ve discovered a brown-headed kingfisher lurking behind the stove and a little sparrow hawk circling the light fitting in my bedroom. Considering that the hole in the screen is only the size of my fist (or, more accurately, the fist of a bygone burglar), this is impressive.

Striped skinks are modern, up-to-date lizards who have no time for all that primitive egg-laying stuff. Mums heroically bear a litter of 3 to 9 mini-skinks each summer (something to look forward to...  hmm).

Now if you’re reading this post, it means:
(a) I still have at least one gallant and faithful reader (I'll add you to my Xmas card list);
(b) I can upload posts despite my wonky internet connection.
Taken together, these suggest that I have no excuse for not resuming blogging. 
Of course, I do have a wide selection of half-written posts on my computer...
Hmm, all I need now is to overcome my self-loathing.... 
Please stay tuned!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...