Mongoose is the popular English name for 29 of the 34 species in the family Herpestidae, which comprises 14 genera. They are small carnivorans native to southern Eurasia and mainland Africa. The remaining species of this family are native to Africa and comprise four kusimanses in the genus Crossarchus, and the meerkat Suricata suricatta.
Temporal range: Oligocene to present
|Top left: Meerkat|
Top right: Yellow mongoose
Bottom left: Slender mongoose
Bottom right: Indian gray mongoose
|Scientific classification |
The name "mongoose" is likely derived from the Marathi name muṅgūs (मुंगूस) (pronounced as [ˈmʊŋɡuːs]) and ultimately from the Telugu name muṅgisa or Kannada muṅgisi. The form of the English name (since 1698) was altered to its "-goose" ending by folk etymology. The plural form is "mongooses".
Mongooses have long faces and bodies, small, rounded ears, short legs, and long, tapering tails. Most are brindled or grizzly; a few have strongly marked coats which bear a striking resemblance to mustelids. Their nonretractile claws are used primarily for digging. Mongooses, much like goats, have narrow, ovular pupils. Most species have a large anal scent gland, used for territorial marking and signaling reproductive status. The dental formula of mongooses is 3.1.3–4.1–2. They range from 24 to 58 cm (9.4 to 22.8 in) in head-to-body length, excluding the tail. In weight, they range from 320 g (11 oz) to 5 kg (11 lb).
Mongooses are one of four known mammalian taxa with mutations in the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor that protect against snake venom. Their modified receptors prevent the snake venom α-neurotoxin from binding. These represent four separate, independent mutations. In the mongoose, this change is effected uniquely, by glycosylation.
Herpestina was a scientific name proposed by Charles Lucien Bonaparte in 1845 who considered the mongooses a subfamily of the Viverridae. In 1864, John Edward Gray classified the mongooses into three subfamilies: Galiidinae, Herpestinae and Mungotinae. This grouping was supported by Reginald Innes Pocock in 1919 who referred to the family as "Mungotidae".
Genetic research based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA analyses revealed that the galidiines are more closely related to Madagascar carnivores, including the fossa and Malagasy civet. Galiidinae is presently considered a subfamily of Eupleridae.
|Subfamily||Genus||Species||Image of type species|
|Herpestes Illiger, 1811||
|Atilax Cuvier, 1826||Marsh mongoose (A. paludinosus) Cuvier, 1829|
|Cynictis Ogilby, 1833||Yellow mongoose (C. penicillata) (Cuvier, 1829)|
|Ichneumia Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 1837||White-tailed mongoose (I. albicauda)|
|Bdeogale Peters, 1850|
|Galerella Gray, 1864|
|Rhynchogale Thomas, 1894||Meller's mongoose (R. melleri)|
|Paracynictis Pocock, 1916||Selous's mongoose (P. selousi)|
|XenogaleAllen, 1919||Long-nosed mongoose (X. naso)|
|Mungotinae||Mungos E. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire & F. Cuvier, 1795|
|Suricata Desmarest, 1804||Meerkat (S. suricatta) (Schreber, 1776)|
|Crossarchus Cuvier, 1825|
|Helogale Gray, 1861|
|Dologale Thomas, 1920||Pousargues's mongoose (D. dybowskii)|
|Liberiictis Hayman, 1958||Liberian mongoose (L. kuhni)|
In 1989, zoologist W. Christopher Wozencraft noted that while the phylogenetic relationships in Mungotinae were obscure, studies in the latter part of 20th century supported two monophyletic clades in Herpestinae: one consisting of Atilax and Herpestes, and the other comprising Bdeogale, Ichneumia and Rhynchogale. Like other feliformian carnivorans, mongooses descended from the viverravines, which were civet- or genet-like mammals.
Behaviour and ecology
Mongooses are largely terrestrial. The Egyptian mongoose (Herpestes ichneumon) has been observed in pairs and groups of up to five individuals.
The Indian gray mongoose and others are well known for their ability to fight and kill venomous snakes, particularly cobras. They are adept at such tasks due to their agility, thick coats, and specialized acetylcholine receptors that render them resistant or immune to snake venom. However, they typically avoid the cobra and have no particular affinity for consuming its meat.
Some species can learn simple tricks. They can be semi-domesticated and are kept as pets to control vermin. However, they can be more destructive than desired. When imported into the West Indies to kill rats, they destroyed most of the small, ground-based fauna. For this reason, it is illegal to import most species of mongooses into the United States, Australia, and other countries. Mongooses were introduced to Hawaii in 1883 and have had a significant adverse effect on native species.
The mongoose emits a high-pitched noise, commonly known as giggling, when it mates. Giggling is also heard during courtship. Communities of female banded mongooses (Mungos mungo) synchronize their whelping to the same day to deter infanticide by dominant females.
For pictures of mongooses on Madagascar, see Galidiinae
Relationship with humans
In ancient Mesopotamia, mongooses were sacred to the deity Ningilin, who was conflated with Ningirima, a deity of magic who was invoked for protection against serpents. According to a Babylonian popular saying, when a mouse fled from a mongoose into a serpent's hole, it announced, "I bring you greetings from the snake-charmer!" A creature resembling a mongoose also appears in Old Babylonian glyptic art, but its significance is not known.
According to Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1.35 & 1.87), Egyptians venerated native mongooses (Herpestes ichneumon) for their ability to handle venomous snakes and for their occasional diet of crocodile eggs. The Buddhist god of wealth Vaiśravaṇa, or Dzambala for Tibetans, is frequently depicted holding a mongoose that is spitting jewels from its mouth. The Hindu god of wealth, Kubera (being the son of Vishrava ("Fame"), Kubera is also called Vaisravana), is often portrayed holding a mongoose in his left hand, hence the sight of a mongoose is considered lucky by some.
All mongoose species, except for Suricata suricatta, are classed as a "prohibited new organism" under New Zealand's Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, preventing them from being imported into the country.
Mongooses are a common spectacle at roadside shows in Pakistan. Snake charmers keep mongooses for mock fights with snakes. This practice is looked at as unethical and cruel across the rest of the world.
On Okinawa (where mongooses were misguidedly brought in to control the local habu snake), mongoose fights with these highly venomous snakes (Ovophis okinavensis and Trimeresurus flavoviridis) in a closed perimeter were presented as spectator events at such parks as Okinawa World; however, due to pressure from animal rights activists, the spectacle is less common today.
In popular culture
A well-known fictional mongoose is Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, who appears in a short story of the same title in The Jungle Book (1894) by Rudyard Kipling. In this tale set in India, the young mongoose saves his family from a krait and from Nag and Nagaina, two cobras. The story was later made into several films and a song by Donovan, among other references. A mongoose is also featured in Bram Stoker's novel The Lair of the White Worm. The main character, Adam Salton, purchases one to independently hunt snakes. Another mongoose features in the denouement of the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Crooked Man", by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Indian Tamil devotional film Padai Veetu Amman shows Tamil actor Vinu Chakravarthy changing himself into a mongoose by using his evil tantric mantra, to fight with goddess Amman. However, the mongoose finally dies in the hands of the goddess.
The mongoose is a prohibited animal in the United States (although it is found in Hawaii in the wild as an introduced species). However, the 1962 case of "Mr. Magoo" became an exception in the continental U.S. Magoo was a mongoose brought to the Minnesota port of Duluth by a merchant seaman and faced being euthanized due to the U.S. prohibition. A public campaign to save him resulted in the intervention of Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, who exempted Magoo from the regulations. Magoo lived out his days on display as the most popular attraction of the Duluth Zoo, dying of old age in 1968.
Nobel Prize winning Chilean poet-diplomat Pablo Neruda had a pet mongoose named Kiria while he lived in Colombo (Ceylon). Kiria had the habit of following the poet everywhere. However, after Neruda moved to Batavia, Kiria disappeared and was never seen again.
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- Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911. .