On a walking safari through the African bush, you might notice an old termite mound with many holes in it . These holes are quite often utilised by Africa’s smallest carnivore , the Dwarf mongoose ( Helogale parvula) .
They weigh in at between 200 and 300 grams .
Active colonies will be indicated by little sausage shaped piles of dung strewn around the base of their refuge . If you were to quietly sit at a distance and wait for the sun to warm up the mound , you will be rewarded with the sight of some furry little heads popping out of these holes. This scrutiny from the safety of the mound might go on for quite some time before the alpha female , being the dominant member of the pack ,will slowly lure the other members of the pack out of their tunnels. They will play in the warm sun and scent mark one another as well as engage in social- grooming before setting off to forage , all of this behaviour is vital to maintain the social bonds of these group living ,diurnal ( day active ) ,mongooses .This is particularly relevant to male and female immigrants that join the pack from outside , as they slowly ingratiate themselves to the existing pack members and seek acceptance. Thus a fresh set of genes is introduced to the pack , and more helpers also benefit the young mongooses .
All mongooses in the pack will assist in babysitting, feeding and warming the young through their journey to adulthood .The mother , who along with the alpha male is the only breeding mongoose in this society is thus able to feed more and can therefore ensure that she lactates sufficiently for her babies survival . The alpha pair may have 2 or 3 litters in a season , they will not tolerate other pairs mating in the pack , and it is thought that they kill the offspring of other potential mothers . The alpha female will give birth to one to five babies after a gestation period of approximately 40 days . The other members of the pack are both related and unrelated to the alpha pair, but all of them will assist in feeding and caring for the babies. This altruistic behaviour ensures that the species is perpetuated, and the individuals give up their own breeding rights.The females are dominant over all males in the pack ,older animals also have higher ranking .
There may be between 2 and 32 mongooses in a pack , with 12 being the average .They are collectively called a ” business of mongooses ” .Pack size varies according to available refuge sites and local food resources .The entire pack will defend a territory of up to one square kilometre., and encounters between packs are aggressive and life threatening. Bigger packs will displace smaller packs from good refuge sites by sheer weight of numbers.
Their diet consists mostly of insects, but they will supplement this with spiders, scorpions, lizards, small snakes and birds as well as rodent’s .The adults forage for themselves and appointed babysitters look after the young.
Sentinel duty in a mongoose pack is mostly the responsibility of the subordinate males, and they will give very specific calls relating to the type of predator spotted, regarding their proximity, species etc.
In some areas the dwarf mongoose has been observed in a symbiotic relationship with various bird species, particularly the red billed hornbill and fork tailed drongo. These birds will catch insects that are disturbed by the movement of the mongooses during the course of their foraging activities. These animals have developed a mutual anti-predator relationship. It has been proven that the mongooses are far less vigilant during foraging excursions when they are in the presence of these birds. The birds will utter specific alarm calls if they detect any kind of threat , and this will be passed onto the entire mongoose troop instantaneously .The pack members will then flee for cover if it is close by or mob their attacker . The main threat that these mongooses recognize is aerial predators, such as smaller birds of prey, that will swoop in from the sky to catch any unsuspecting members of the pack . Under four months old the babies are particularly vulnerable to predation, but the adults could be taken also by raptors, snakes, storks and even monitor lizards. The new born mongooses are also small enough to be eaten by their hornbill guardians, but are not taken by them.
Cheek and anal gland secretions are used to mark objects around the nightly refuge site , they may do a handstand type balancing act to achieve this on taller objects.
Lifespan may be up to 15 years .