Able to survive attacks that would kill a human in a matter of minutes, could the unassuming-looking mongoose be the toughest predator on Earth?
For thousands of years humans have been mystified by the mongoose’s ability to battle one of the most feared snakes on the planet. This legendary animal quickly became world-famous for its amazing ability to strike down the deadly king cobra. This snake, although responsible for many human deaths, is easy prey for a scurrying mongoose and hundreds of myths arose to explain this marvel. The scientific community was equally baffled and it was once widely believed that mongooses were not immune to snake venom and simply dodged the serpent’s strikes. Eventually it was found that mongooses had developed a resistance to the fatal fluid. Some animals build up immunity to toxins over time, like clownfish that eventually don’t feel pain from a stinging anemone. Instead, mongooses have tackled the problem of snake venom on a much more fundamental level. The genetic code for the mongoose became mutated during evolution. This means that venom molecules, that have remained unchanged, are no longer compatible with the mongoose’s system.
The venom of a cobra kills an animal by altering channels that transport vital elements around the body. The toxic molecules attach themselves to ion channels and force them shut, resulting in death. A uniquely shaped protein that the venom is able to mimic in most mammals controls these channels, but mongooses escape death due to a genetic mutation. This mutation has changed the shape of the protein that controls the channel and the receptor it binds to. This means that the venom particles can’t attach to the blood channel and the mongoose’s body is completely unaffected.
Predators hunt mongooses on land and in the air. Birds of prey swoop down to pluck them from the dusty ground, while lions and leopards stalk them silently through thick vegetation. In some areas mongooses have teamed up with hornbills to help escape eagles. The birds wait for the mongooses to leave their burrows and then forage as one large group, all the while looking out for danger. Disease is also a threat to mongooses and some researchers estimate that over 40 per cent of mongooses are carriers of leptospirosis. This bacterium is widespread around the world and is commonly contracted from infected rats, which make up a significant portion of a mongoose’s daily diet. The real danger is that mongooses near human settlements are in danger of being eradicated to prevent the spread of this disease, which can also be contracted by humans. Along with this, throughout history humans have been fascinated with the mongoose’s amazing snake fighting and have collected them from the wild to perform or control vermin.
Three Mongoose myths
Their eyes turn red
Though widely believed, mongoose eyes don’t glow red when facing a snake. This myth originated from sightings of mongooses with copper-coloured eyes, like the yellow mongooses of South Africa.
Mongooses help each other
Though mother mongooses live with their young, adults are mostly solitary. When two adults are sighted attacking a snake, it’s likely that the mongooses are fighting over the snake rather than working as a team.
They only eat snakes
Snakes are just a part of their diet, which contains anything from frogs to fish. There are more than 30 different species and some specialise in hunting different animals, like the semi-aquatic crab-eating mongoose.
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