Crouched in the dappled shade of a marula tree, I was counting pups.
Not pups of the canine persuasion; mongoose pups.
Now this was no easy feat because they were passing me at speed, curled into walnut-sized balls within the mouths of their caregivers.
Number five was having a rough ride, dragged along enthusiastically by nine-month-old Echo. Despite pointing his nose skyward and waddling on tiptoes, he simply wasn’t tall enough to lift his cargo clear of snags.
Oh, wait a minute, there’s one being carried back again...
Back to five...
Koppiekats group was shifting its week-old pups to a new termite mound and it was my one chance to figure out how many there were.
Frenzied excitement gripped the group as mongooses dashed back and forth; some carrying pups, some not. Calling anxiously to one another, and with agitation-fluffed fur, some individuals raced ahead to check the safety of the new mound while others ran helter-skelter back to huddle the last nest-bound pups. Meanwhile the pup-carriers hurried on past, self-importantly announcing their passage with uninterrupted, high-pitched peeps (‘clear the way, pup coming through’). And the little ones - although tiny, black-fuzzed and blind - gave ear-piercing squawks whenever they were unceremoniously dumped beneath tussock or log.
No wonder the group was so excited.
Four is the normal size of a dwarf mongoose litter.
So how did Koppiekats end up with eight?
As you probably know, dwarf mongooses - like their celebrated cousins the meerkats – are the living embodiment of the Musketeers’ motto. Dedicated to the ‘all-for-one and one-for-all’ maxim, group members team up to harry snakes, evict trespassers and warn one another of incoming raptors. With heroic selflessness, they forfeit their own romantic aspirations to devotedly care for the offspring of their group’s sovereigns. It’s all heart-warmingly altruistic.
In reality, the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting are not quite so chaste. These heirs apparent (sisters and grown daughters of the Queen) are not above indulging in a little hanky-panky. And when the inevitable happens, they try to hush it up by smuggling the consequences into the royal nursery.
To help perpetuate the hoax, they give birth on the same day as the monarch. I don’t know how they manage this because the courtiers normally mate a day or two after the Queen. But when royalty decrees, loyal subjects follow, ready or not. It looks as if the illegitimate pups are simply borne a little premature (they’re smaller and have shorter fur). Even courtiers who are only ‘a bit pregnant’ honour the auspicious day, aborting their litters and discreetly nibbling up the tiny pink foetuses.
|When spring is in the air, the ladies of the court don’t seem to be able to say ‘No’, and the sovereign is rarely alone when she delivers the first litter of the summer. This is Cricket, an errant Princess in Bugbears, awaiting the big day.|
So what’s the fate of these illegitimate ankle-biters?
Well that’s in the paws of the Queen.
Normally they’re doomed.
Her Majesty swiftly transforms them into a restorative post-partum snack and the bereaved mums then act as wet-nurses for the rightful heirs. Fortunately (from my perspective) dwarf mongooses don’t believe in airing their dirty laundry in public so all I see of the nefarious deed is a bulging tummy and blood-smeared chin. Not so meerkats, who enact a horrifying spectacle in which the whole group tussles over the gory remains.
However, occasionally, if food is plentiful, the Queen grants a stay of execution. A genetic study of Serengeti’s dwarf mongooses found that 18% of pups reared by the group are the progeny of lesser females. Although the rulers of my other study groups were merciless this year, Pleiades, the sovereign of Koppiekats, opted for clemency. So some of the pups that just passed me are actually Pleiades’ nieces, nephews or grandkids.
But even if they escape the death sentence at birth, illegitimate pups aren’t out of the woods. They face a second test. And it is this that has made me apprehensive every time I've visited Koppiekats.
You see at one month old, mongoose pups begin tagging along on the group’s daily foraging jaunts. Chivvied, cajoled and carried, the little ones are tended constantly. Carefully lodged under a log or boulder, the pups are then presented with half-chewed creepy-crawlies by doting group members.
But when the pups hit five weeks old, this mollycoddling stops. Although everyone still feeds them (and will do so for another five weeks), the youngsters are expected to look out for themselves. If the group runs, so must they. It doesn’t matter how far, or how fast; they must keep up. So if any pup is below par (debilitated from want of food, illness or underdevelopment), they’re simply left behind.
Although I loathe this phase of mongoose-rearing, it serves the mongooses well, ensuring that they channel their efforts only into the healthiest pups.
And I’m very relieved to report that all but one of the little Koppiekats pups managed to pass this trial. Aided and abetted by a timely glut of beetle lava, seven of the roly-poly little creatures live to tell the tale. In fact they’re doing so well, they spend most of their time playing rather than trying to cadge food from their betters.
|If you were wondering, no-one left these pups out in the rain. The rusty patches on their fur are from daubs of ‘Camomile’ blonde hair dye (so I can tell who’s who).|