8 Magnificent Facts About Mongooses

They're well known for their ability to kill venomous snakes.

yellow mongoose portrait
The yellow mongoose is native to a swath of Southern Africa.

Andyworks / Getty Images

A mongoose is a small, dynamic mammal with a long body and short legs. Mongooses are famous for standing their ground against venomous snakes, both in literature and in real life, but they are also complex creatures with many other interesting quirks.

Here are a few things you may not know about mongooses.

1. The Plural Is 'Mongooses,' But It's OK to Say 'Mongeese'

Since English speakers are accustomed to the plural of "goose" being "geese," it might feel strange to say "mongooses" when referring to more than one mongoose. "Mongooses" is indeed the correct plural form, but "mongeese" is also recognized by some dictionaries as an alternative.

So why is "goose" in the word in the first place? The name of these animals may have come from mangus in Marathi and Tamil, mangisu in Telugu, or mungisi in Kanarese. The current English spelling is believed to have arisen from folk etymology, according to Etymology Online.

2. There Are About 30 Mongoose Species Around the World

a brown dwarf mongoose on a brown surface
The dwarf mongoose is the smallest of about 30 mongoose species. Csaba Esvég / Getty Images

Mongooses belong to the taxonomic family Herpestidae, which includes some 30 species across 20 genera. They are native to Africa, Asia, and southern Europe, but some species have also spread beyond their native range. They vary in size from the dwarf mongoose, which measures about 8 inches long and weighs less than a pound, to the white-tailed mongoose, which can grow up to 2.3 feet in length and weigh 9 pounds.

Mongooses are closely related to civets, genets, and euplerids. The latter is a group of carnivores from Madagascar that includes the cougar-like fossa.

3. They Have a Few Tricks for Defeating Venomous Snakes

A mongoose confronts a cobra.
A mongoose confronts a cobra. Gaurav Shivadekar / Getty Images

Humans have long admired mongooses for their ability to kill venomous snakes, including cobras and adders. This trait was also famously dramatized by Rudyard Kipling in his 1894 short story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," in which the titular mongoose saves a human family from villainous cobras.

Mongooses are formidable opponents for snakes largely due to their speed and agility, which helps them avoid the reptiles' fangs and launch quick attacks when they sense an opening. But some species also have an extra advantage: They've evolved a resistance to neurotoxic snake venom, allowing them to keep fighting even after receiving a bite that would kill most animals their size. They are not immune to the venom, but thanks to special mutations in their nervous system, the neurotoxin has difficulty binding to their nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, rendering it less effective.

4. They Have Diverse Diets

yellow mongoose eating an insect
Insects are a dietary staple for many mongoose species. Tambako the Jaguar / Getty Images

Mongooses are mainly carnivorous, but they are known to supplement their diets with plant matter. Despite their defenses against venomous snakes like cobras, they often target smaller, simpler animals as prey. Their diets may include insects, earthworms, crabs, rodents, birds, lizards, and snakes, as well as both bird and reptile eggs.

5. Some Species Are Semiaquatic

marsh mongoose on a branch near a river
The marsh mongoose makes its living in swampy vegetation along rivers and lakes. Patrick Gijsbers / Getty Images

Mongooses have adapted to a wide array of habitats around the world, from deserts to tropical forests. They can even be semiaquatic, proving adept in the water as they hunt fish, crabs, and other aquatic prey. The marsh mongoose, for one, is reportedly an excellent swimmer that can dive for 15 seconds at a time while hunting.

6. Some Are Loners, Some Live in Mobs

mob of meerkats
A meerkat mob keeps watch at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana. Westend61 / Getty Images

Many mongooses live solitary lives, while others form sophisticated communities. Meerkats, one of the most famous mongoose species, are well known for their social groups of up to 50 members, known as "mobs."

A meerkat mob consists of several family groups, typically centered around one dominant pair. Members of the mob perform various jobs, like foraging for food, taking care of the babies, or watching out for predators. The lookouts will sound an alarm if trouble is approaching, in which case the meerkats might flee or confront the threat as a group.

7. Mongoose Communication Can Be Surprisingly Complex

two banded mongooses
The banded mongoose is capable of phonological syntax. Zocha K / Getty Images

Some mongoose species have relatively advanced communication skills. Meerkats make at least 10 calls with various meanings, from murmurs and growls to clucks, spits, and barks. And the banded mongoose, whose calls may sound like simple grunts, can combine discrete units of sound similar to the way humans use a consonant and a vowel to form a syllable.

"The first portion of the call provides cues to the identity of the caller, and the second part encodes its current activity," researchers reported in the journal BMC Biology. "This provides the first example known in animals of something akin to the consonants and vowels of human speech."

8. They Can Wreak Havoc Outside Their Native Habitats

invasive mongoose in Hawaii
An invasive mongoose peeks out from bushes in Hanauma Bay, Hawaii. Melinda Podor / Getty Images

Humans have sometimes introduced mongooses to new habitats in hopes of controlling snakes, as well as pests like rats. This has usually backfired. Often, the mongooses not only fail to stop the pests, but also become an invasive species, causing more trouble than the snakes or rats ever did.

The Javan mongoose, for example, was introduced to many tropical islands around the world in the 19th century, often to control rats at sugar cane plantations. It went on to decimate native birds in Hawaii, and it remains a problem on every Hawaiian island but Lanai and Kauai. Similar results played out around the world, from Fiji to the Caribbean.

In 1910, the Javan mongoose was brought to Okinawa to help control the venomous habu, a native pit viper. But the snakes are nocturnal while the mongooses are active during the day, so they didn't cross paths often enough. Instead, the mongooses began to prey on other native wildlife, including endangered species like the Okinawa rail.

Given the threat of invasion, mongooses are banned in many places outside their native range, including the United States and New Zealand.