Herpestidaemongooses

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Mongooses are mainly African, with one genus also widespread in Asia and southern Europe (and it has been widely introduced elsewhere). Several genera are restricted to Madagascar; these are placed in their own subfamily, Galidiinae. Overall, 34 species are found in about 20 genera.

Mongooses are small carnivores. Their body lengths vary from around 230 mm to over 750 mm, and their weights range from less than 1 kg to around 5 or 6 kg. Most are brown or gray. A few species are striped, but most are not. A very few species have banded tails. The claws are not retractile. Herpestids tend to have small heads, pointed snouts, and short, rounded ears that are not as conspicuously erect or pointed as those of viverrids. Many have anal (not perianal, as in viverrids) glands that secrete a foul-smelling substance. Male herpestids have a baculum.

The skull of most herpestids is long and flattened. One pair of lower incisors appears to be slightly out of (raised above) the line defined by the incisor row. The carnassials are well developed. The last upper molar is not constricted in the middle. The dental formula is 3/3, 1/1, 3-4/3-4, 1-2/1-2 = 32-40. In the auditory bullae, the demarcation between ectotympanic and entotympanic parts of the bullae is clear, and in this family it is perpendicular to the long axis of the skull (it is oblique to that axis in members of the family Viverridae). The ectotympanic part of the bullae is approximately equal in size to the entotympanic part, or larger. A median lacerate foramen is present.

Most herpestids are predators, feeding on a wide range of animals including small mammals and birds (including bird eggs), reptiles (especially snakes), a wide variety of insects, and crabs. Their ability to kill poisonous snakes such as cobras and adders is legendary. Their success is due to speed and agility, for they are not immune to the snake's poison. Some species also include vegetable material in their diets, feeding on tubers, fruits, and berries.

Some herpestids are gregarious, occurring in colonies that sometimes include more than 50 individuals. Others are solitary. Most species are terrestrial, often making complex burrow systems, but a few include arboreal habitats in their foraging. Herpestids are found in a wide variety of habitats, ranging from desert to tropical forest. Some species are semiaquatic, readily entering the water to feed on fish, crabs and other aquatic organisms.

Mongooses have been introduced to a number of places, usually to help control snakes and rodent pests. Unfortunately, this has rarely, if ever worked, and the the introduced mongooses have generally been a worse problem than the creatures they were introduced to control.

Literature and references cited

Feldhamer, G. A., L. C. Drickamer, S. H. Vessey, and J. F. Merritt. 1999. Mammalogy. Adaptation, Diversity, and Ecology. WCB McGraw-Hill, Boston. xii+563pp.

Paradiso, J. L. 1975. Walker's Mammals of the World, Third Edition. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Savage, R. J. G. and M. R. Long. 1986. Mammal Evolution, an Illustrated Guide. Facts of File Publications, New York. 259 pp.

Stains, H. J. 1984. Carnivores. Pp. 491-521 in Anderson, S. and J. K. Jones, Jr. (eds). Orders and Families of Recent Mammals of the World. John Wiley and Sons, N.Y. xii+686 pp.

Vaughan, T. A. 1986. Mammalogy. Third Edition. Saunders College Publishing, Fort Worth. vii+576 pp.

Vaughan, T. A., J. M. Ryan, N. J. Czaplewski. 2000. Mammalogy. Fourth Edition. Saunders College Publishing, Philadelphia. vii+565pp.

Wilson, D. E., and D. M. Reeder. 1993. Mammal Species of the World, A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference. 2nd edition. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington. xviii+1206 pp.

Contributors

Phil Myers (author), Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

tactile

uses touch to communicate