MONGOOSES AND FOSSA FACTS
Mongooses are a family, Herpestidae, of small to mediumsized, mainly carnivorous Old World mammals. Their overall appearance suggests a small, generalized mammalian carnivore. They have long bodies, short but powerful legs, and long, often bushy tails. In some ways, they converge with (resemble) the mustelids (mammal family Mustelidae: weasels, badgers, skunks, otters, wolverines) of the New World.
Family Herpestidae, including species in Madagascar, includes about thirty-five species and seventeen genera (JEN-uhruh), although not all taxonomists, or classifiers of animal types, agree as to the exact number of genera and species. The large island of Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa, has eight mongoose species arranged in four genera, probably all descended from a single founder species that rafted on floating vegetation from Africa. The Malagasy mongooses are classified in a subfamily of their own, the Galidiinae. All other mongoose species are classified within subfamily Herpestinae.
Adult head-and-body length throughout family Herpestidae runs 9 to 25.5 inches (23 to 65 centimeters), tail length 9 to 20 inches (23 to 51 centimeters), and weight just under 1 pound to 9 pounds (0.4 to 4.0 kilograms). The exception to these measurements is the fossa of Madagascar, the largest of the Herpestidae and the most un-mongoose-like of all mongoose species. A fossa can grow up to 31.5 inches (80 centimeters) head-and-body length, with a tail just as long, and an adult weight of 20 pounds (9.1 kilograms).
Fur colors in herpestids are various shades of brown and gray, with lighter, sometimes white, fur on the underside. Some species carry stripes or stipplings on their darker fur. The fur can vary in texture as well, from soft to coarse, short to long. There are five clawed digits on each of the four paws, the claws of the forefeet long, sharp, and curved. Except for the fossa, the claws are not retractable, meaning they cannot pull them back into the paw. The small head and face taper to a pointed muzzle, sometimes with a straight bridge from crown to the end of the snout, or there may be a distinct, sloped forehead where the head and muzzle join. The ears are short and rounded.
Herpestids carry glands for scent-marking in their cheeks and near their anuses. Some species can shoot out a foul-smelling fluid from the anal glands.
Mongooses live in mainland Africa, southern Europe, Madagascar, southern Asia including India, the Malay Peninsula as far as and including Sumatra, Borneo and Java; also the islands of Hainan and Taiwan.
MONGOOSES AND FOSSA HABITAT
Mongooses live in various types of forest, including humid tropical rainforest, also dry grasslands and near-desert. They shelter in self-made burrows in the ground or in termite mounds, or in natural shelters like hollow logs and spaces within rock piles.
MONGOOSES AND FOSSA DIET
Mongoose species have generalized, mainly carnivorous diets, helping themselves to insects, crabs, millipedes, earthworms, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, birds, birds’ eggs, fruits, and roots. Before eating toads or caterpillars, a mongoose will roll them back and forth on the ground to wipe off skin poisons of toads and irritating hairs of caterpillars. Among mongoose species that eat bird eggs, a mongoose will break open an individual egg by holding it in its forepaws and pitching it backward between its hindlimbs and into a rock, or by standing up on its hind legs and dropping the egg. Several species eat fruit as supplements to a mainly meat diet. Some species swim in ponds and streams, searching for fish and other aquatic animals.
An individual mongoose baits a snake by skillfully avoiding and dodging the reptile’s lunges until it tires and slows down in its actions, enabling the mongoose to dart in and seize the snake behind its head, killing it by biting, then eating the snake at leisure. Mongooses are not immune to the venom, so that a mongoose-on-snake tussle is always dangerous and can end in death for either party.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
Mongooses are energetic, aggressive, and playful. They may hunt and forage alone or in groups. Some species are nocturnal, active at night, others are diurnal, active during the day. Diurnal species often start their days by sunning, outstretched on rocks or the ground near their shelters, and exercising to limber themselves up for a day of foraging.
Mongooses live in colonies of up to fifty individuals. These may live in burrow networks or just build temporary shelters for themselves during migratory foraging.
Some mongoose species breed seasonally, others breed throughout the year, females giving birth two or three times annually. Gestation periods range from forty-two to eighty-four days. There are one to four young per litter. Captive Egyptian mongooses have lived for over twenty years.
MONGOOSES AND PEOPLE
Mongooses and humanity share intertwined histories. The animals have been the source of innumerable folk tales in their native lands, e.g., “Rikki-tikki-tavi,” the famous short story by British writer Rudyard Kipling, based on native legends of India. Mongooses have been praised for destroying pests and condemned for preying on non-pests, especially domestic poultry.
From ancient times until the present, mongooses have been introduced by humanity to mainlands and islands over much of the world, in attempts to keep down problem populations of rats and snakes: Italy, Spain, Portugal, Yugoslavia, many of the Caribbean islands, and the islands of Hawaii and Fiji. Since mongooses are so highly adaptable, they soon outdo the original problem they were introduced to control by becoming pests themselves, preying on harmless and beneficial local bird and mammal species, and raiding poultry. A number of countries that have learned the lesson the hard way and now outlaw the possession or importation of mongooses.
The World Conservation Union (IUCN), includes on its Red List of Threatened Species, four mongoose species considered Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction, and five Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction. Three Vulnerable and three Endangered species are in Madagascar. The main threats to mongoose species are habitat destruction, and, on Madagascar, habitat loss plus competition and predation by introduced predators like dogs and cats. Nevertheless, family Herpestidae, overall, is flourishing.