You are sitting at Nungubane’s hide, watching the quiet approach of animals towards the waterhole. The early sun is warming the earth. It is perfectly still. Suddenly you become aware of something moving quickly through the grass close by. Whatever it is must be small, as it is below the level of grass tops and not clearly visible. And whatever it is, judging by the scattered movements in the grasses, there must be many of them. Every few seconds, you hear a little chattering sound. Then you see them. It’s a business, setting off on its morning foraging expedition.
A business is a collective noun for a group of dwarf mongooses, Africa’s smallest carnivore and a very interesting animal. Relative to other mongoose species, they are indeed dwarf, with a shoulder height of only 7.5 cm, markedly smaller than Welgevonden’s three other species – banded, slender, and white-tailed.
Dwarf mongooses are territorial, and highly social. Their territories can vary between 30 and 60 hectares, depending on the type of habitat. They travel short distances each day as they forage, staying close to each other and constantly communicating with each other by quiet calls. At night they usually stay in holes in termite mounds, although the group that visit Nungubane sleep in a hole deep in the rocks. It can take them several weeks to circumnavigate their entire territory.
Because of their diminutive size, they are preyed on by raptors, snakes, jackals, and larger mongoose species. In response, they have evolved remarkable cooperation strategies, both between members of the group and with certain bird species, notably hornbills.
A group can number up to 30 members. It is a matriarchal society, with a dominant female and a dominant male, but the work of bringing up the young is shared between all. They have evolved a system of babysitting. When a mother is out foraging, babysitters look after her young ones. What makes them unusual among social carnivores is the reason for their cooperation. Social carnivores, such as lions, wild dogs and hyenas, mostly cooperate so that they can successfully hunt prey together that a single animal could not bring down easily. When a kill is made, it is usually shared between the group. But in dwarf mongooses, the purpose of their cooperation is not hunting, but mutual defence against predators.
When I see them bounding along, or busy foraging, I think of Anne Rasa. Much of what we know about their social life is due to her work. Anne Rasa is a distinguished British ethologist who spent some 15 years studying dwarf mongooses. Many of her most important observations were made during time spent with a group of dwarf mongooses in the Taru Desert in southeast Kenya in the 1980’s. Reflecting on her findings, she wrote: “I know of no other mammalian society, except Man’s, which has such a high degree of mutual ‘caring’ and division of labour – even to the point of nursing their sick or injured group members – as that of the Dwarf mongoose. Also like Man, as individuals these animals are rather weak and helpless, but together, acting as a group, there are not many enemies in their bush world that can stand against them. The social parallels between these little carnivores and ourselves are greater than between us and the majority of our closest cousins, the Great Apes.”
She also concluded that the mongooses were highly intelligent. She observed, for example, that they were able to learn to distinguish between vultures and eagles high in the sky, which was relevant because vultures do not prey on mongooses but eagles do.
Anne Rasa observed the extraordinary association between the mongooses and hornbills. They would go foraging together. In the morning the birds waited in the trees around the termite mound, where the mongooses were sleeping, for them to emerge, and the mongooses would delay their foraging departure if no birds were present. Each would warn of aerial predators for the other. Mongooses always forage cooperatively, with one acting as a sentry for the others. Young mongooses learned how to become sentries. The mongooses had evolved a different warning call for aerial predators and for ground predators. Anne Rasa also noted that the birds would even warn for raptor species which did not prey on the birds but which were mongoose predators. She concluded that this association, with its high degree of mutual benefit and compensatory behaviour, is probably unique among vertebrate animals.
So when next you see a little band of small dark animals scampering across the Welgevonden landscape, remember that you have just observed one of the bush’s more remarkable inhabitants.
WORDS AND IMAGES: IAN FINLAY @ianfinlayphotography
- Personal observation, Nungubane Lodge and in Welgevonden Game Reserve.
- Rasa, Anne, (1985), Mongoose Watch.
- Rasa, Anne, Dwarf Mongoose and Hornbill Mutualism in the Taru Desert, Kenya, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, vol. 12, no. 3 (1983).