Colours of Wildlife: Slender Mongoose

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Slender 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!"

Slender Mongoose by Willem

The critter I share with you today is a Slender Mongoose, Galerella sanguinea. It is sometimes placed in the genus Herpestes along with some other, larger mongooses. This is one of South Africa, and indeed Africa's, most abundant small carnivores. It occurs over all of sub-Saharan Africa, except the densest rainforests and the driest deserts. It even enters gardens, and I've had such little visitors a few times. It is also called a Black-tailed Mongoose, or a Black-tipped Mongoose. In Afrikaans it is a 'swartkwasmuishond' or 'black-tufted mongoose'.

These are small mongooses, reaching about 70 cm/28" in total length and a weight of just over 700g/25 oz. They are long-bodied and short-limbed. In colour, they are amazingly variable. Over their range, as many as fifty different sub-species have been recognized, in colour varying from pale sandy through greyish to rich russet to dark brown. They're all characterized by a black or dark tip to the tail. A black form from Namibia and Angola is sometimes included in this species, sometimes recognized as a species of its own. In general, back or melanistic individuals occur more frequently in colder regions.

Mongooses are mostly versatile opportunists, and so it is with this one also. It is an active hunter of all sorts of small critters from insects to rodents and small birds. As mongooses are famous for, they too can kill and eat venomous snakes, but they don't actually do that very often. They sometimes scavenge. They also take a small amount of plant foods such as juicy ripe fruits. Another trick they share with some other mongoose species is their way of dealing with eggs. If they find an egg too large to bite open with their jaws, they will hurl it backwards between their hind legs at a rock or other hard object until it breaks. Their front and back toes are dextrous and can splay wide. This helps them with manipulating items and with climbing, and they're unusual for mongooses in often venturing into trees. On the ground, they move with a swift, sleek, gliding run, pausing from time to time to scan their surroundings, sometimes standing upright on their hind legs to get a better view. When running away from a threat, they will lift their tails high with the black tip curled forward over their bodies. Some people say that the tail mimics a cobra that's rearing and about to strike.

They live in a great variety of habitats, from open grassland and semi-desert to lush savannah and the edges of forests – though seldom the forest interior – and even reed and sedge swamps. They need some kind of shelter like trees, shrubs or rocks. They make their dens in burrows, often in large termite hills, in hollow logs, or in rock crevices. They're active mainly by day. They don't like the cold, and may stay inside their dens on chilly, overcast days. On a sunny morning they may emerge early and bask in the sun for a while before commencing the day's activities. They're mostly seen singly, but live in loose social systems, with each male forming associations with up to four others. They may join in defense of territories and access to one or more females. These allied males share a territory, but don't stay together, instead foraging separately. Sometimes they eat, sleep or play together. To communicate they make a variety of sounds, described as purrs, whistles, hisses, and caterwauling – but these sounds are rarely heard by human observers.

In most of their range, slender mongooses may breed at any time of the year. One or more males will start to stalk a female that comes into oestrus. She will mate with one or more of them over several days. She gives birth to her litter of one, two or rarely three pups in her den. She receives no help from the males in caring for them. They are blind and helpless at first, their eyes opening at three weeks, and starting to eat solid food at four weeks. They are fairly self-sufficient at ten weeks. Sometimes the female will then have another litter, in which case the previous litter will become independent; if not, they may stay with her for up to nearly a year.

Slender mongooses are widespread, abundant, adaptable, and, although sometimes persecuted by farmers and poultry keepers, not threatened with extinction. Wild ones can live for eight years.

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