Wherefore art thou mongoose?

This was meant to be published in early October but my internet connection wasn’t good enough for upload photos, so here it is now. 

Oh the frustrations of finding dwarf mongoose in the bush. To start off, they are pretty small – less than 30cm in length! Add to this, that they are a lovely brown colour that happens to blend in quite well with wood and the ground. In addition, they can be very quiet. I’ve been with a group before and they have gone silent, leading me to believe that they have moved but actually they’re just being quiet. So when you’re looking for them, that’s no help.

It’s easiest to look for them in the morning and just before sunset, as they will either at or near their sleeping refuges. At these times of day, it is a case of making the rounds within their territory and hoping you catch them before they leave (in the morning) or go to sleep (in the evening). This usually works, but occasionally the group will be using a refuge that we don’t know of, so the theory falls down there.

A mongoose up in a tree!

A mongoose up in a tree!

During the day, it gets a bit more difficult as you have got to walk throughout their territory calling for them. Yes, we call out to them and we actually call “Mongoose”! It sounds a little bizarre, but they’re habituated to come to that call and receive a little bit of food for it. Some groups are great, they’ll respond to your call with enthusiasm. I have had one group come running to me from almost 50 metres away. On the other hand, I have been right next to a group and been completely ignored by them.

So you still have to rely on your eyes and ears for any tell-tale signs of mongoose presence. The slightest rustling can get me suddenly veering off my path and calling hopefully for mongoose. I say hopefully because it is usually a couple of birds that I’m scaring off. They do make small contact calls to each other, but you usually can’t hear them unless you are fairly close.

As for seeing them? Almost no chance unless they’re moving between foraging spots or in an obvious sentinel position. Take these photos below, can you spot the mongoose? To myself, the mongoose in the first photo is very obvious, and in the second photo, still quite noticeable. But usually, they’re hidden amongst the rocks or branches and it’s a bit more of a challenge.

Spot The Mongoose - Level: Easy

Spot The Mongoose – Level: Easy

Spot The Mongoose - Level: Medium

Spot The Mongoose – Level: Medium / Hard

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SA Animal Profile – The Dwarf Mongoose (an introduction)

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you will hopefully have noticed that the common thread, or my current raison d’être, is a particularly lovely species, the Dwarf Mongoose (Helogale parvula). Similar looking to a mustelid, such as the UK weasel or stoat, this small (hence the name) animal is one of a range of mongoose species, and is found in the southern savanna and parts of the south west of the African continent. In the Limpopo Province of South Africa (where I’m located), they are a fairly common animal.


Dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula)

The dwarf mongoose is beautiful creature – slim, glossy-coated and fascinating. A highly sociable animal, they live in groups consisting of a dominant alpha pair, their offspring and other subordinate adults. The dominant male and female are the only ones to breed, producing an average litter size of three pups. All adults contribute to the care of the offspring – babysitting, warming and transporting them. Additionally, other females may lactate to feed the pups, despite not breeding themselves.

Each group has a territory, which may overlap between adjacent groups and cause hostility. If two packs do meet, the smaller group usually avoids the larger one. Within the range of their territory, the mongoose have a network of sleeping burrows, day refuges and latrines. The former are normally termite mounds, although trees are also used.

A standard day for a dwarf mongoose starts quite casually. Upon getting up from the sleeping burrow, the group usually spend some time sunbathing and grooming. The amount of time can vary from group to group, and from day to day. When they’re ready, they leave the sleeping burrow for a day of foraging.


Mutual grooming at a refuge

The diet of a dwarf mongoose typically consists of insects such as grasshoppers, beetles, and larvae, though small vertebrates may also be taken. Foraging occurs in grass, through leaf litter and around logs and trees. As they often need to dig for food, dwarf mongoose are vulnerable to predators including birds of prey, jackals and snakes. While an individual will often pause foraging to scan for predators, they cannot be vigilant during the actual digging process. One mongoose may act as a sentinel, where it sits in a prominent position such as on a rock or log and will alarm call if a threat appears. A sentinel is posted for about 40% of foraging time.


Sentinal mongoose on a rock

The end of the day is reverse to the beginning. The dwarf mongoose will return to their sleeping burrow at some point in the few hours of sunset (it can be two hours before, or less than half hour before), either the same burrow as the morning or a different one within their territory. They normally spend some time sunbathing and grooming before heading down to sleep.

There are many aspects of their behaviour that I haven’t covered, but this has been only a general overview and introduction to the dwarf mongoose species.


These aren’t the mongoose you’re looking for

Also known as, the frustrating third week. It started off hopefully, looking for a dwarf mongoose group I’d not yet met. However, after two days of walking through the bush without finding them, my mood was not so cheerful. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy those two days, I saw a number of new insects and birds, and potentially even a crocodile down at the waterhole! I’m undecided about this last one. I had just arrived at the waterhole, when I saw something rather large on the opposite side, sliding into the water. Logic indicates that it probably was a crocodile.

Image The waterhole/lake where I (maybe) saw the crocodile

The following days I was with a different group, one that found easily. They are a lovely group, though following them through the scrub was quite exasperating as the weather was quite cool and chilly. When the wind blows, foraging mongoose just stop their activity, leaving you to panic that you’ve lost them because they’ve moved during the windy time and you didn’t hear. Sometimes true, sometimes they have just stopped moving. I lost them once that way, and spent a couple of hours wandering around calling them. At one point, I thought I had found them, but it turned out to be a neighbouring group where their territory overlaps. I rewarded the group nonetheless for coming to my call. The training needs to be reinforced even if they weren’t the mongoose I was looking for. I lost them again the following day, but luckily found them both times.

To cap off the week, I spent Saturday with a recently habituated group. This meant moving slowly and carefully throughout the day, trying not to cause an alarm call and for them to scatter in all directions. As a recent group, only a few are comfortable coming close, but I’d been told of a confident individual. I was a little wary, confident individuals in other groups are usually quite bad-tempered and growl at the others for the food, or spend the whole time in the weights box. This one was different though, she was calm and patient, able to handfeed without biting your finger. But what made me fall for her was the fact that she licks your fingers to get the crumbs of food. She is absolutely adorable. Later in the day when I was following the group, I had settled onto a rock whilst they foraged around me. She happily climbed up onto the rock next to me, and looked up at me, as if to say “time for more food?” Unfortunately it wasn’t, so she soon left my side to forage, but I think that may be one of my favourite mongoose memories during this fieldwork.