The Northern hemisphere seems to be neck-deep in long, thin, sneaky creatures. These are the weasels and their cousins; ferrets, martens, stoats, ermines, minks, sables, polecats and more. This is partly an illusion, because the good people of the north seem to while away the cold winter months by thinking up new names for their wildlife. This is fantastic for nature enthusiasts, because you can fill up your wildlife checklist very quickly. If you are lucky enough to see a mountain lion, you can also tick off panther, puma, catamount, cougar, painter, and, if you’re feeling feisty, mountain screamer.
But even if a sable is a marten, a stoat is an ermine, and a polecat is a ferret, that’s still a lot of weasels. Down here in South Africa, we’ve only got one, and it spends most of its time pretending to be a skunk.
Don’t feel sorry for us though. We have mongooses. They’re not quite as long, thin and sneaky as weasels, but they’ll do. In fact, in some ways, they do better. I’m no weasel expert, but from what I can gather, they all sneak around being long and thin in slightly different ways. Not so the mongooses. Some of them do tend to sneak around being long and thin and solitary, but others have decided that the only choice for them on the mean, hard streets of the Lowveld is the thug life. They join gangs.
Yes, folks, it’s time for another Lowveld ecosystem blog. It’s December, I work in retail, and my company is under frighteningly enthusiastic new management. My mind has shut down, and I couldn’t think of anything interesting to say if my leg burst into flames and my bathroom was invaded by Episcopalians. I will try to be more interesting in January, unless I have been institutionalised. Until, then, you’re just going to have to learn about mongooses. And their prettier cousins.
The Sneaky Question Mark.
Every now and then, as you drive along the country roads of South Africa, a low, shadowy shape will detach itself from the grass and flow across the road like mercury. When it reaches the verge on the other side, it will stop, raise its head, have a quick look around, and then disappear. You can stop and look around, but you probably won’t see it again.
This is a slender mongoose, the longest, thinnest, sneakiest and altogether weaseliest of our mongooses. If you want to see one properly, you have to get there first. Sometimes, if you sit very quietly out in the bush, reading or just sitting and waiting to see what comes by, you may suddenly notice a large black question mark sneaking through the grass. It’s a slender mongoose’s tail. It’s ridiculous. It’s longer than the mongoose’s body, and curves up at the end into a fluffy, black tuft. It doesn’t seem to get in the way though, and its long sinuousness only adds to the general sneakiness of the beast.
If you keep sitting quietly, you can watch the mongoose go about his business. They are a joy to watch. Most birds fly to get from one spot to another, but every now and then, you will find one that genuinely glories in flight. It will swoop, and dive, and twist through the air with such obvious joy that you keep expecting it to throw back its head and shout “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEHAH!” The slender mongoose is like that with sneakiness. He will pick his way carefully through long grass, body winding around obstacles like water. He will freeze, startled by some real or imagined danger, body suddenly as still as stone. He will dart into thickets, diving head first into the tangle of wood and leaves. He will step carefully behind a seemingly insignificant little tuft of grass and simply disappear, only to suddenly appear in a totally different spot a few minutes later, glancing up at you as if to say “Did you see that? I don’t think you saw that. Nobody saw that. Damn I’m good!”
The night stalker
Porcupines have nasty spines. Zorillas (the African version of the skunk) have nasty smells. Honey badgers have nasty dispositions. All these creatures are nocturnal, and all of them are black and white. It’ nature’s way of saying “back off!”
The white tailed mongoose is quite big for a mongoose. It’s about 3,5 kg. But it’s still just a mongoose. It’s not a sneaky mongoose either. It’s nocturnal, and trots around quite cheerfully and confidently across open plains in a place filled with big ugly carnivores desperately looking for something to eat.
The answer to how it does this may lie in its tail. It’s huge. And white. Natures warning colour. The curious thing is that no-one really knows what it’s warning them about. It doesn’t have spines, or a nasty disposition. Like all of the mongooses, it has large scent glands around its anus, but people who have caught them say that they don’t seem to use them in defence.
And yet they seem to be left alone. People have seen them trotting around quite unconcerned near hyenas. Maybe they have some secret, undiscovered defence, like laser vision, or some sort of tail based death ray. Or maybe it’s all just bluff.
The gangsters (entry level)
Every now and then, while driving through the bush, you will come across a small, mixed flock of birds, dominated by hornbills, hopping around on the ground or perched expectantly on low bushes. If you turn off your car and sit quietly for a while, a tiny black head will suddenly pop out of the nearest log or termite mound and stare at you. Followed by another one. And another one. Small black shapes, like rat sized otters, will dart from cover to cover. You have found a gang of dwarf mongooses.
And they are utterly charming. Unlike the sneakier, solitary mongooses, they get quite tame, and, if you choose to spend a quiet afternoon reading on the stoep (patio) out in the bush, will happily spend the afternoon with you, lying around on their stomachs like sunbathers, or scuffling around in the leaves. You always know when they are coming. Because they can talk.
Lots of animals communicate with sound, but these guys have taken t to the next level. They make biologists very excited. Forget dolphins, or albino gorillas who can use sign language to talk about cats, these guys are where the action is when it comes to studying the genesis of speech. They constantly make little peeping noises, called contact calls, to keep the gang together as they move through the undergrowth. But that’s just the start. They have a slightly different call which means “Come on, guys, time to go”. This changes slightly to mean “Get the hell out of here, now!” A different call means “Come here, guys. You need to check this out!”
They really come into their own, though, with alarm calls. Almost all social animals have some sort of alarm call. Their vocabulary is fairly limited though. Most of them just shout “Run! Run run run run run!” Not so the dwarf mongooses. They tell each other how close the danger is, and what kind of danger it is. This is pretty important. If you’re as small as they are, you need to tailor your panic to the creature that’s trying to eat you. You can’t do the same thing for snakes as you do for eagles.
All this chatting doesn’t seem to satisfy their social needs. They make friends. With birds. Those hornbills I mentioned earlier are more than just fellow travellers. They are vitally important to the mongooses. And the mongooses are important to them.
As they scamper through the bush, the mongooses stir up insects, and scratch open logs and balls of dung, providing ready meals for their feathered escorts. For their part, the hornbills warn the mongooses of approaching danger, and not coincidentally. The hornbills even give warning calls about creatures that are dangerous to mongooses but not to themselves. This is no small service. When you need to stand on your hind feet to see over the top of someone’s shoe, your chances of spotting an approaching predator are fairly limited.
When biologist see this sort of thing, they use terms like “altruistic relationship” and “mutualism”, which is nice, because it makes them sound very clever, but these guys really are friends. The Lowveld actually gets quite cold, especially on winter’s nights. Dwarf mongooses sometimes try to have a bit of a lie-in. When they do wake up, they like to sunbathe for a while. This will not do.
The hornbills will arrive at the mongooses sleeping spot early in the morning, and wait for them to emerge. If they try to sleep in, one of the hornbills will go and stick their heads down one of their holes and call to wake them up. If they try to sunbathe for too long, the hornbills will chivvy them along. For their part, if the mongooses wake up and find their friends absent for some reason, they will wait around for them, pacing backwards and forwards like commuters whose bus is late.
The gangsters (boss level)
While you sit around reading on your stoep, it won’t always be the “peep” of a dwarf mongoose you hear. Sometimes you will hear a “churrchurrchurrchurr”. Brace yourself. The banded mongooses are coming.
The dwarf mongoose move around in plucky little groups of around eight or so. Not so the banded mongooses. They move around in groups of over twenty. Sometimes there can be over forty of them. I am inordinately fond of them myself, but I am willing to concede that they are not necessarily charming. They are thugs. Bruisers. Brawlers. Gangsters. In the true sense of the word.
Like gangsters, they spend an awful lot of time fighting amongst themselves, jockeying for position in the gang hierarchy and squabbling over food, but as soon as an outsider threatens them, all is forgotten. And as a gang, they can be formidable. They happily take on large poisonous snakes like cobras, forming a loose ring around them and darting in to nip at them whenever they see an opportunity. People often think that a striking snake is fast, but that’s just when compared to people. Compared to mongooses, snakes are agonisingly slow.
To banded mongooses, snakes are food, but they will also take on predators. When it comes to land predators, like jackals, the mongooses form a tight group, and advance as one. Confronted by a seething, churring mass of bared teeth and bravado, the predators often back down. They have even been seen climbing bushes to free one of their number from the talons of an eagle.
Gangs need to find a way to identify themselves. The Bloods and the Crips use red and blue bandanas. Hell’s Angels use tattoos and vest patches. Mongooses use body odour. To be fair, Hell’s Angels use body odour too, but not like these guys. Most territorial animals use smell in some form or another to mark out their little patch of the world. They build piles of dung at strategic spots along their borders, and spray urine onto trees and bushes. If you have a male dog, you probably know all about this.
Some animals take this to the next level. They have special scent glands on their bodies, usually around the anus, but sometimes on the ankles or the cheeks. They deposit little dabs of paste around their territories that last much longer than dung or urine. All the mongooses do this. But the banded mongooses go one better. They mark each other. Every now and then, they get together and drag their butts across each other. The whole group ends up with an instantly identifiable smell. It sounds a bit gross, but it hurts less than getting a tattoo.
They don’t talk. Not like the dwarf mongooses. But they are very vocal. They also have a contact call, and an alarm call, and, to their detriment, an excitement call. If you ever want to be entertained, give a banded mongoose an egg. Banded mongooses don’t like to share, but they have poor impulse control. Confronted with something as exciting as an egg, the mongoose cannot help but let out an excited chitter. And then try desperately to defend his prize while the entire pack descends on him like teenage girls round a boy band. In the end, the only real defence he has is to try and eat as much of the egg as he can as quickly as he can. While twenty other mongooses try to do exactly the same thing. It’s mayhem.
They aren’t always that silly about getting food, though. Sometimes they can be quite smart. They dash in and bite the tails off scorpions before settling down to eat them at leisure, and they have a special little trick for dealing with tasty snacks with hard shells. If you put down some marrow bones, you can watch them do it. They will find a suitable rock and stand with their back to it. Then they will stand up, grasping the bone in their front paws, and suddenly dash it through their back legs, hitting the rock hard enough to shatter the bone. On the third try. If they’re lucky.
There are other mongooses out in the bush. Yellow mongooses and water mongooses and such. But they have snuck themselves out of contention. You hardly ever see them, let alone get to watch them. But they do have some much prettier cousins, which you see quite often, if you make a bit of effort.
If you aren’t from Africa, chances are you’ve never heard of a genet. But that very nearly wasn’t the case. If things had gone just a little differently, you might have been reading this with one on your lap. If you are a slightly eccentric spinster, you might have twenty of them living in your house. Genets are small, about the size of a miniature dachshund. They have retractable claws. They are good climbers. They eat rats and mice. Sound familiar?
It should. A couple of thousand years ago, they began to be domesticated. We started to farm. When we got good at it, we started to store grain. This made rats and mice very happy. But not us. We started to look for a way to kill them. What if we had a small animal, good at climbing, with retractable claws, that ate rats and mice, that could sort out our problems without bothering us too much. And we did. Genets. They proved to be so good at this that there is a relic population of them in Spain and Portugal that were taken there by farmers to protect their granaries. And then we found cats. Cats won. And you’ve never heard of a genet.
Which is a pity. They’re much prettier than cats. You sometimes see them while driving around at night, climbing through trees or picking their way through tangles of brush, but the best way to see them is on the stoep. You have to be looking for them, though. Because you will never hear them. They make stalking cats seem loud and clumsy.
On moonlit nights, after the world has gone to bed, you turn off all the lights and find an unobtrusive spot to sit. And then you wait. And stare out into the night. When the moon is full, Africa is not dark. It’s bright enough to read a book. But the shadows are dark as sin. And you sit and stare at them.
If you’re lucky, you might spot a movement. Part of the shadow will suddenly detach itself from the dark and flow across the paving in front of you. Turn on a torch, and your wait will be rewarded. Genets are beautiful. They make cats look clumsy and awkward. They have pale bodies covered with spots, and huge, bushy tails ringed with black and white. And those spots are a bit of a mystery.
You see there are two types of genets in the Lowveld. The small spotted genet and the large spotted genet. Staggeringly, the small spotted genet has small spots and the large spotted genet has large spots. And that’s the only difference between them. They are the same size. They eat the same things. They catch those things in the same places in the same ways.
This should not be. Everything in nature occupies a niche. Whoever fills that niche the best, wins. That’s why brown bears are so different from black bears, spotted hyenas from brown hyenas, leopards from cheetahs. The Highlander had it right. There can only be one. Except for genets. For them, there can only be two. Or four, if recent genetic test are to be believed. And it’s not like we are missing out on some subtle difference or anything. They can’t even tell the difference themselves. Hybrids are not unusual. If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.
If you’ve never heard of a genet, you’ve probably never heard of a civet, either. Unless you are very rich.
Civets are the gods of smell. A civet is even prettier than a genet. Its body is a patchwork of stripes and spots, and it has a rather fetching lone ranger type mask over its eyes. It’s about the size of a goat. While mongooses sneak, civets lurk. Whenever you see one, it’s generally standing still, just staring at you. When you see almost any other animal do this, it’s because they have frozen on the spot, hoping not to be noticed, like children playing musical statues. Not so the civet. With him you get the idea that he’s been there for a while. Just standing and staring. Like that kid in school who fixated on you, and was always looking at you whenever you turned around.
If that was the only thing you knew about them, civets would actually be quite dull. But they’re not. First of all, they eat millipedes. Shell and all. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. Almost nothing else does this. Because millipede shells contain cyanide. Maybe they’re not lurking. Maybe they’re just high on deadly poison. You can always spot civet dung because it’s full of bleached rings of millipede shell.
Which leads to point two of the “not dull” train of thought. Their dung is remarkable. Firstly, as I said, it’s full of millipede shells. Secondly, it’s deposited in such large, foul smelling piles that they have their own name; “civetries”. And finally, a civet dropping is huge. Unfeasibly, unnecessarily large. It’s just silly. A civet weighs about 20 kg. A lion can weigh over 200 kg. Civet droppings are bigger.
And point three? Like I said, the civet is the god of smell. Civetries smell foul. Civets smell foul. Whenever they come across something rotten and rancid out in the bush, they will roll in it. But more importantly, they manufacture their own smell.
They are named for it. Originally, civet was the word for the scent they produced. It comes from those anal glands I mentioned earlier. And it’s pretty rank. You can buy it though. As I said earlier, if you a rich, you might have bought it before. And sprayed it lovingly over your body in the hopes of seducing that special someone.
There is something special about civet musk. It lasts. It enhances the smell of its components. Those are things you want your perfume to do. Someone, somewhere, sometime, sniffed some civet musk, wrinkled his or her nose, and thought “That’s pretty rank. I wonder what will happen if I spray it on my body.” And it worked. When you distil out the nasty stuff, you are left with a substance that “exalts” perfume. It enhances other smells and makes them last.
And so, yet again, mankind stepped up to the plate. Civets were caught and shoved into small metal cages. Every now and then, someone with a very low level of job satisfaction would dig around it’s ass with a long, thin, metal spoon. And the perfume houses of Paris would rejoice. This wasn’t something that happened a hundred years ago. Chanel stopped using it in the 1990’s. Other parfumiers are using it still.
So if you just shelled out a thousand dollars on perfume for your wife this Christmas, check out the ingredients. If it says civet, you will know that someone stuck a goat sized African millipede eater in a small cage and dug your wife’s Christmas present out of its ass with a long then metal spoon. Whether that makes you feel better or worse about your gift is entirely up to you.
And that, good people, is me for this year, or at least until after Christmas. If I survive the cheerful world of Christmas retail at all, I will have post-traumatic-stress disorder and a facial tic. My posts may be a little off for a while. I apologise in advance. Until then, cheers and merry Christmas! Enjoy your presents. Unless you get perfume. Then just check the ingredients first.