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.|
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.|
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.
BUT THERE WOULD BE NO WEASELS!
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.
BUT THERE WOULD BE NO WEASELS!
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?
LITTLE WART WEASEL.
|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
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.