Every morning in Serena camp, a little parade of mongooses comes down the hill to forage for insects (or table scraps) by our lab table. We have become enamored with their pointy noses and tiny paws, their fierce natures and insatiable lust for food, and I want to share these incredible creatures with you.
Mongooses make up the family Herpestidae – closest genetic cousins of our dear hyaenids. There are 26 species of mongoose, but only six of those species live in the Mara, and we have only seen two of them in camp.
The first group of mongooses to appear in camp were the dwarf mongooses (Helogale parvula), East Africa's smallest carnivore.
These tiny red critters are diurnal and highly social, living in groups of up to 25 individuals. We seem to have around ten that visit us in camp, chirping and whistling to each other as they pass by. Though they look harmless enough at a distance, when we see them up close, we can see the impressive length of their claws, and when they yawn, we can see their sharp little canines. They feed on invertebrates and small reptiles (and occasionally our leftovers – they are particularly fond of egg yolks).
The second group of mongooses is comprised of four banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) that we have named Sneezy, Penelope, Rusty, and Barnaby.
These mongooses are the most abundant and frequently-seen mongoose species in the Mara, being diurnal, social (living in clans of up to 40 individuals), and more than twice the size of the dwarf mongooses.
Banded mongoose social groups are led by a dominant female, and they den together in termite mounds or unused burrows. They go out daily to forage for insects by digging them out of the ground; a few members of the clan will forage while others stand on two legs and stay on the lookout for danger. They are extremely vocal, using churring calls, twitters, and grunts to keep track of each other as they forage, and loud alarm calls when there is danger. Their greatest threat comes from the sky – Martial eagles will swoop down and grab a mongoose, but others of the clan might actually mob the eagle and free their captured clan-mate.
Most often, we see the two species at separate times of day, but occasionally, they have come to forage and argue over scraps together. This often results in amusing, squeaking alarm whistles from the dwarf mongooses as they flee the approach of the bandeds, but not always! Just the other day we saw one of the dwarf mongooses "bark" twice at a banded mongoose and advance toward it to scare it off the scrap of food it had found! We think the banded mongoose was just so impressed at the ferocity of the dwarf mongoose that it decided to let him have it and move on to some tasty morsel elsewhere.
We are so lucky to get to see the lives of so many wild animals up close here in the Mara, and the mongooses have become one of my favorite parts of living here.
Resources: Animals of the Masai Mara by Adam Scott Kennedy and Vicki Kennedy, The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals by Jonathan Kingdon