Rather adorably, mongooses who live together develop “specialist” diets to avoid food fights, a new study published in Ecology Letters has found.
"Social animals can gain many benefits from group living, but they also suffer from competition over shared food resources," Michael Cant from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the University of Exeter's Penryn Campus in Cornwall explained in a statement.
"Our research shows that banded mongooses respond to this competition by developing specialized foraging preferences.”
Banding together offers individual mongooses (Mungos mungo) certain social advantages (namely protection) but it can also generate intergroup conflict. It is not an understatement to say these animals have a bit of a violent streak, evident in this video of a particularly brave mongoose taking on a cobra and this one here of a mama mongoose fighting off not one but four lions. It's not just potential predators that have to beware the mongoose wrath – gang brawls between groups are not uncommon.
While this aggressive tendency has its benefits when it comes to scaring off potential predators or rivals, it can create some struggle within groups. After all, hunger pangs can turn the most easy-going person in the world a little grouchy. So to skirt around this particular dilemma each individual mongoose establishes their own dietary niche.
Researchers from the universities of Exeter and Roehampton discovered this interesting phenomenon after observing a population of wild banded mongooses in Uganda, whose diet includes a selection of creepy crawlies (millipedes, ants, termites, and beetles) and vertebrates (frogs, mice, and reptiles). The team was able to work out what each individual was eating from the chemical composition of their whiskers. In total, there were 760 samples taken from 322 banded mongooses in 10 social groups.
This allowed them to test two opposing theories. One, the foraging theory, which assumes increased competition will encourage the mongooses to develop more varied diets. Two, the classic competition theory, which predicts it will spur them on to develop more specialized dietary niches.
The results support the second, suggesting that an individual mongoose will pick out certain food types, leaving everything else for his or her pals. Even though each group had a comparable overall niche size, the larger the group, the smaller the niche of each individual mongoose.
"This is the first test of these competing ideas about the effect of social competition on diet in mammals," Harry Marshall, Lecturer in Zoology at the Centre for Research in Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour at the University of Roehampton explained.
"The findings suggest that group living may be one of the processes that promotes greater specializationn."
Whether it's personal taste, upbringing, or social conditioning that determines a particular mongoose's niche, however, is unclear.