mongoose, name for a large number of small, carnivorous, terrestrial Old World mammals of the civet family. They are found in S Asia and in Africa, with one species extending into S Spain. Mongooses are fierce, active hunters, feeding on a variety of ground-living animals, as well as eggs, and, in some species, fruits. They live in a variety of habitats and occupy rock crevices or holes, or dig burrows. Unlike civets, they lack scent glands. Typical mongooses, species of the genus Herpestes, are weasellike in appearance, with long, slender bodies, pointed faces, and bushy tails. Their hair is coarse and shaggy. They range in length from 11/2 to 31/2 ft (45–106 cm) including the tail, which is about as long as the head and body. The Indian gray mongoose, H. edwardsi, is known for its ability to kill snakes, including cobras. A medium-sized mongoose, it lives in arid rocky or brushy areas, or cultivated pastures. When attacking a snake, the mongoose provokes it to strike repeatedly, avoiding it by agile dodging; when the snake is exhausted the mongoose seizes its head in its jaws and crushes the skull. Skill in evading the snake is learned, and young mongooses often die of snakebite. However, ingested snake venom is harmless to the mongoose, which eats the snake's head and venom glands. The Indian mongoose is easily tamed and is often kept as a pet and a destroyer of household vermin. Imported into the West Indies to kill rats, it destroyed most of the small, ground-living native fauna. Because of their destructiveness, it is illegal to import mongooses into the United States, even for zoos. The Egyptian gray mongoose, or ichneumon, H. ichneumon, is a large species common in most of Africa and in S Spain. It lives in damp, forested regions and preys on small terrestrial and freshwater animals. The ancient Egyptians domesticated this mongoose, which they considered sacred. The marsh mongoose, Atilax paludinosus, lives near bodies of water in Africa and dives for food. The meerkat ( Suricata suricatta ), or suricate, is a social mongoose of S African grasslands; meerkats live in large communal burrows and prey chiefly on insects and other small invertebrates. Mongooses are classified in approximately 12 genera of the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Viverridae.
See H. E. Hinton and A. Dunn, Mongooses (1967); A. Rasa, Mongoose Watch (1985).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.