Colours of Wildlife - The Yellow Mongoose

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Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours ... but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Painting of a yellow mongoose

Mongooses...Mongeese...whatever the case, they're cute!

Here's a picture of a Yellow Mongoose, Cynictis penicillata. This is a species occurring over most of Southern Africa, favouring the drier, more open regions. I painted this from a photo taken by a friend. These mongooses (mongeese?) occur in the Pietersburg area as well.

Yellow mongooses are fairly small, with a total length of about 50 cm (20"), and a weight of 440-800 g (about a pound to a bit less than two pounds). They are very cute in appearance with short faces, large eyes and pointy snouts. Their bodies are fairly long, their limbs short, and their tails medium length and rather bushy. Though called 'yellow', they can vary a lot in colour, from reddish brown, through yellowish, to pale creamy or even grayish. In cold regions, such as the south of South Africa, or upland regions, they have longer fur than in warmer regions such as northern Namibia. Although lots of different varieties have been described, they are currently considered as constituting just a single species, the only one in its genus.

These mongooses are among those that live in groups, in their case numbering up to 50 members, rather than singly. They live in extensive burrow complexes, often together with other similar-sized burrowers like Suricates (Meerkats) or Ground Squirrels. The groups are strictly hierarchical, dominated by a single breeding pair. The alpha male marks not just his territory, but also the other pack members, with anal secretions. He also uses faecal secretions and urine to mark the boundaries of his territory. Apart from the perks of power he has responsibilities as well: he is the chief hole-digger. The members that are the lowest in rank are the ones on the edges, spending most of their time away from the centre of the pack. These are the more dangerous and exposed places to be. These mongooses, being small, are very vulnerable to larger predators such as snakes, eagles, jackals and leopards (or even smaller cats). They are very alert, constantly on the lookout for danger from any direction.

These, like other mongooses, are primarily carnivores, but due to their small size the creatures they eat are mostly small – invertebrates like beetles, crickets or harvester termites. They may catch mice or rats, and if very hungry will eat fruit. Like other mongooses, they have been seen to kill snakes, but this is rare, and is more likely the result of a group trying to get rid of a potential predator, than deliberately attacking and feeding on them.

There's been a lot of confusion about the names of this and other mongoose species. First of all there's the plural. Neither mongooses nor mongeese sounds quite right! But officially they're both recognized. Then there's confusion in Afrikaans between Mongooses and Meerkats. The species called 'Meerkat' most of the time is the Suricate, Suricata suricatta, which is indeed a species in the mongoose family. In Afrikaans we call it the 'Graatjiemeerkat' indicating that there should be other 'meerkats' as well. And indeed we call the Yellow Mongoose the 'Geelmeerkat' or 'Rooimeerkat' (Yellow or Red Meerkat) from time to time. Thus one would conclude that 'Meerkat' in Afrikaans overlaps in meaning with 'Mongoose' although the other mongoose species are called 'Muishonde' in Afrikaans. And then to be funny the Southern African Ground Squirrel is sometimes called the 'Waaierstertmeerkat' (Fan-tailed Meerkat) even though it is not at all closely related, being a rodent rather than a carnivore.

The names have led to some joking, such as in a supposed English essay written by an Afrikaans child translating 'Meerkatte' and 'Muishonde' as 'more cats' and 'mouse dogs'. 'Meer' does indeed mean 'more', and 'Muishond' is indeed literally translated as 'Mouse Dog'. 'Mouse Dog' does make sense, these being small predators; the name 'Meerkat' is more difficult to explain. Funnily in German the equivalent name, 'Meerkatze', is used for small monkeys! But the word 'Meer' in this case refers to the sea or the ocean; monkeys often having been brought to Europe by sailors having picked them up in exotic locations, and at least some of them being rather vaguely cat-like. But in Afrikaans 'meer' (aside from 'more') means 'lake'. So the Afrikaans name means 'lake cats' which certainly is an inappropriate term since both the Suricate and the Yellow Mongoose live in dry, sandy regions.

Mongooses constitute a quite clearly-defined family of small carnivores, the Herpestidae. The name 'mongoose' comes from 'mangus', in the Marathi language of India. In Asia, only a single genus, and nine or ten species, occur. All fourteen genera, and about 23 to 26 species (depending on how some forms are classified), are found in Africa, where they constitute the most diverse and abundant group of carnivores. The Egyptian Mongoose, Herpestes ichneumon, is the only species that reaches southern Europe. A few species have been introduced by humans to the Caribbean Islands, Hawaii, and some others, where typically they've caused devastation of native bird and other small animal species.

A family of related species, the Eupleridae, occurs in Madagascar. These are descendants of an animal close to the origin of the mongooses, that somehow made it from the African mainland to the island – which by then already was separated by a sea-strait several hundred kilometers wide – about 20-25 million years ago. The most likely way it might have got there was by 'rafting', for instance drifting on a tree that had been uprooted and washed out to sea by a cyclone. But once on Madagascar, it diversified into many species, including Madagascar's largest living carnivore, the Fossa. (OK by 'it' I mean the species – it had to have been constituted by at least two individuals, a male and a female, for it to have been able to effectively found a colony.)

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