I feel like I have to start with this wonderful creature. I did a presentation on the small Indian mongoose in third year wildlife nutrition – I mainly picked the mongoose as my animal of choice for the presentation because I really think the plural of mongoose should be mongeese. Unfortunately, it isn’t. But despite that I’ve always had a soft spot for these little animals, and after researching them for my class my admiration for mongooses only increased. I also learned a lot about them.
When I first picked my animal for my topic, I wrote down ‘mongoose’, thinking about the epic snake-fighting, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi-like creature that I had heard of. Most of them don’t actually fight snakes. It’s mainly the Indian mongoose that does (a different species from the ‘small’ variety), and although there is a myth that it is immune to cobra venom, that’s false. It’s true that they may have a slight resistance to snake venom, but that’s not the reason they are so good at fighting snakes. It’s partly because they have very thick fur, which the cobra’s teeth can’t really penetrate, but mainly because they are so fast. Cobra’s have to lift their heads to strike – which give the mongoose more than enough opportunity to lunge in and then lunge away if the cobra attacks.
But that’s besides the point. The real point is I only really had a vague idea of what a mongoose really was. It turns out I had to pick a certain species of mongoose for the project – we had to calculate energy usage and other mundane things. I didn’t even know there was more than one species of mongoose. But there is. There is, in fact, a whole family of mongooses, the family Herpestidae. Herpestidae is a family in the order Carnivora, which unsurprisingly contains most of the world famous carnivores: lions and tigers and bears and such. It also has many omnivores (mongooses included!) and even some herbivores (notably the giant panda). After finding the Herpestidae family, I searched through to find an appropriate mongoose species. After a few quick journal searches, it looked like Herpestes javanicus turned up the most search results, and, being a typical student who didn’t really want to do a whole lot of sifting through journals, I picked that one.
Little did I know that the small Indian mongoose is an amazing creature with a fascinating history. They are fairly small animals, (hence the name), and every inch of them is designed for their highly adaptive, omnivorous lifestyle. That omnivorous life is a key factor in this mongoose’s success, and it is a very successful creature – it’s on ICUN’s top 100 most invasive species list. And here’s why. In the 1800s, people grew sugar cane in the Caribbean. And while productive and sweet (I’m guessing), any kind of systematic crop growing is going to attract pests. In this case, it was rats. Rats like sweet things. They use sugary solutions to train rats in labs. I don’t know if unrefined sugar cane is sweet, but my guess is it is, or at least tasty to rats. But anyway, these rats started eating all the sugar cane and causing all sorts of economic losses to plantation owners. Someone had the bright idea of using other animals to hunt and kill the rats. They first tried using terriers, traditional ratting dogs. But apparently the sugar cane was too thick and the terriers too high off the ground; a lot of them were injured and some were blinded.
So then a brilliant man named W.B. Espeut had an idea. He had heard of a creature from India that was an excellent rat hunter. It was fast, agile, and low to the ground. I don’t think he was the first person to try bringing mongooses to the New World, but he was certainly the first successful one. In 1872 Espeut took five female and four male small Indian mongooses to his plantation in Jamaica. They flourished, and Espeut wrote, in 1882:
“I question much if such enormous benefit has ever resulted from the introduction and acclimatization of any one animal, as that which has attended the Mungoos in Jamaica and the West Indies.”
“I marvel that Australia and New Zealand do not obtain this useful animal in order to destroy the plague of Rabbits in those countries.”
A rave review. But the mongoose didn’t just eat the rats. It ate everything. As I said before, they are omnivores. Though they certainly have more meat-biased tastes, these critters will eat fruits and plants if they can’t get anything else. So put them in environments like Jamaica and Hawaii where native fauna haven’t seen anything like a mongoose before – and they will thrive. And they have. Many species in place where mongooses have been introduced are now threatened with extinction, almost completely due to the success of this creature. And while it’s a terrible thing that so many wonderful birds are endangered, I don’t think we can really blame the mongoose. After all, it didn’t choose to be there.
What I get from this story is a) don’t ever introduce species anywhere. It never goes well, and b) damn, mongooses must have been some kind of awesome to be that good at being invasive. I mean, we have extermination methods now to try and get rid of them and they still aren’t slowing down. Kudos to you, mongoose. Two final notes. 1) W.B. Espeut was a botanist, which apparently means you are qualified to make decisions about introducing species to island ecosystems. 2) I got a really good mark on this project, so thank you, small Indian mongoose. You will always have a place in my heart.