Colours of Wildlife: White-tailed Mongoose

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White-tailed Mongoose

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!"

White-Tailed Mongoose by Willem

Not long ago I 'treated' you to a dissection of a young mongoose that had perished on a road. I think it's time I showed you what a handsome animal it could have grown up to be. The White-Tailed Mongoose, Ichneumia albicauda (the scientific name means pretty much exactly the same as the common name), is South Africa's largest mongoose species in overall dimensions, though two others rival it in bodyweight. It reaches a total length of 1.2m/4', and a bodyweight of 5.2 kg/11.4 lbs. Encountered in the veld, it gives the impression of a small dog or even a fox, with a very bushy tail. It usually walks tall on its relatively long legs, with its back arched. It is not often seen. It is nocturnal and very secretive. I have seen it well once, when we encountered an individual crossing a road at night while doing our Birding Big Day in 2016. The species occurs in the eastern and northern parts of South Africa, avoiding only treeless grassland, shrubland and desert, and from here northward into almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, being absent only from dense rainforests. It frequents savannahs, open woodlands, grassy forest clearings, and much human-altered habitat, such as farmlands and even on occasion suburbs.

In spite of its name, this mongoose doesn't always have a white tail. There occur dark (melanistic or boderline) forms that can have all-black tails. These are identified by their size and shape. No other mongoose walks as 'tall', and few others have similarly bushy tails. Those that do, are either smaller, and/or frequent different habitats. In South Africa, the species most similar to it is Selous' Mongoose (which I'll feature here as well) with a similar white, bushy tail, but which is much smaller and with a 'cuter' less dog-like face.

Like other mongooses, the white-tailed is a hunter of small critters, mainly invertebrates like grasshoppers, termites, beetles and crickets, and small vertebrates like mice, frogs, and snakes. It enjoys bird eggs, which it breaks open in the manner of other mongooses: it finds a rock, positions the egg between its legs and then throws it backwards towards the rock; usually a few tries are necessary for the egg to hit the rock hard enough and break, so that the mongoose can lap up the contents. Very rarely it eats fruits. It is a solitary forager. It trots methodically, zig-zagging across its range, using its keen senses to find potential prey. A single mongoose has a home range depending on the richness of its habitat: in lush regions, it can be a few hectares, while in dry regions it can be up to 8 square kilometres/a tad over 3 square miles. While males are aggressively territorial, females may share rangers, and are often accompanied by their young or adult children. They mark their territories with scent from glands in their backsides. They can identify other individual mongooses by their smell. In addition, they also use 'latrines', set places in which they defecate, and the piles of droppings also mark out the territory and identify the owners. When confronting rivals in its territory, the mongoose will lift itself even higher than usual, and fluff up its fur, including its shaggy tail, to look as big as it can. It will bark and scream when challenging and fighting its rival.

'Home' for a white-tailed mongoose is a spacious hole, usually in a termite hill. They don't excavate much themselves, being poor diggers, but use cavities made by for instance aardvarks. Each mongoose uses two or three different dens in their territories. They spend the entire day sleeping, coming out after sunset and hunting till early the next morning. Females give birth to 1-4 babies at a time, mostly in spring or summer.

White-tailed mongooses are fairly unspecialized, being good at trotting for long distances, but poor at digging. Thus they are dependent on holes dug by other animals. They thrive in varied or varying environments, but are outcompeted by specialists in fixed or monotonous habitats. At the moment they are very widespread and common, and not in need of special conservation efforts.

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