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.


  1. Carl Jacob Sundevall, ycleptomaniac. Thank you for a lovely funny blog of maternal umbrage

    1. Thank you for introducing me to the word ‘yclept’; I hadn’t encountered it before. I’m trying to use it every day but my dogs are starting to get bored.

  2. Hilarious! One of the best blogs on the planet.

  3. How about this? --- Heliogale, the sunny weasel. You could slip that one into the literature and then claim a minor typo if there was a problem.

    1. Ah, a cunning plan. Next manuscript, I’ll give it a go (name change by stealth).

  4. To start, that last photo makes my heart warm. BABY tiny tiny mongooses? Wow.

    And your last line is delightfully evil. =)

    Is it possible the mongooses DO get little warty things (some skin disease, infection, whatever) and that's what Mr. W's specimen had? You know, that whole small sample size, erroneous conclusions thang.

    As someone who is ALLEGEDLY supposed to know the names of things (animals AND plants), at least now and then, I can tell you:

    Used to be able to say "Holla" (but spell it Hyla) in the field whenever we found a Hyla regilla (Pacific tree frog--learned that fun habit from a co-worker). Now we cannot w/out subjecting ourselves to scorn as the NEW name is Pseudachris sierra. *sigh* Try and make a fun clubby chant from that one, when you're trying to cheer yourself 'cause it's 6 a.m. and dark and cold and you're getting rained on, walking through the mud to check traps...

    SO, I'm thinking, based on all the work you've done (& hopefully some fancy DNA data so all the snobs buy it) you could recommend a name change, since taxonomic connections are different than they'd appeared, lo these many years ago. Then YOU get to name them.

    btw, I prefer delightful little weasel to sweet little weasel, in case someone might misinterpret the name, think these are tasty animals, and try the unthinkable. If they do, of course, perhaps you could introduce them to your local crocodiles...

    Lovely post, AS EVAR. xoxoxoxo

    1. My sympathy over your tree frog loss. You’re spot on with regard to the mongooses sometimes suffering skin diseases. In my first year here a number died from an unidentified illness that produced mange-like lesions on their faces, ears and paws. It could explain the whole wart thingy.
      Unfortunately justifying a change in genus is a bit beyond me (pin on rabbit ears?). A recent molecular study found that dwarf mongooses are closely related to cusimanses, so one could argue that they should share a genus. Unfortunately, the cusimanse’s name (Crossarchus) appears to mean ‘ancient tassel’ for no reason I can figure. What is it with these taxonomists?!

  5. A pet peeve which set me off a while ago;
    Lineus meant for the names to be set in stone - still - he never allowed for the fallibility of mankind.
    Mistakes were made, and even new ideas entered, yes, names can change and they do.
    Maybe you can make a case ...
    Considering Tolkein was a 'Vrystaater' born. Will we be at peace with it ?

    1. I’m afraid I’m no taxonomist so any case I could make (‘...but I don’t like it’) would be unlikely to pass muster.

  6. Haha I also really like your blog =D
    Just a question. I've heard about people keeping these dwarf mongooses as pets. Just want to know what your opinion is about them (I grew up with meerkats only)

    1. Hi,
      I'm glad you enjoy the blog.
      I think no one should EVER keep a dwarf mongoose as a pet unless they're able to keep two or more. The problem is that they're inherently group-living (i.e. a dwarf mongoose alone is a dead mongoose) so they're TOTALLY incapable of being left on their own EVER (not even for 5 minutes, or to sleep alone at night). They simply freak out and, being small and hyper, this has awful consequences. Pet ones almost always succumb to stress-related illnesses within a year or two (those in captive colonies live into their late teens). I would also suspect that they'll become aggressive toward strangers (as do meerkats and banded mongooses) since they're fiercely territorial in the wild. They may be little but I would NOT want one fastened on my ankle!

  7. Hello again,
    A question - have you seen Anne Rasa's work on the mongoose, Mongoose Watch A family observed. I have a spare copy available.
    I would agree on animals in captivity. Stress is a killer.

    1. Hi,
      Yes, I have a copy of Anne Rasa's book which I (predictably) enjoyed. Thanks for the offer though.


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