Dwarf mongoose are extremely social cooperative breeders and within their community, they show great organization of roles. The group is dominated by an alpha pair that are solely responsible for breeding and for leading, alpha female, and initiating defence, alpha male, of the group. The other members of the group - which may be the successive offspring of the alpha pair or immigrants totally unrelated to them – perform duties that range from guarding, grooming and protecting the group to babysitting, playing with, warming, transporting and raising the young or caring for the sick or wounded. The assistance of the group produces a collective effort that improves the survival of the individual, more eyes and ears allow for a coordinated warning system, and allows for maximum breeding success that would otherwise be compromised if the animals paired off without helpers. The alpha female, and mother of the litter, is free to feed while up to three mongoose ‘baby sit’ her brood and this augments her milk production.
Sometimes, despite being sexually suppressed by virtue of their subordinate status in the group, other females may also lactate to help feed the young.
Although the alpha pair are essentially responsible for the reproductive effort, sometimes subordinate individuals may also breed. The onset of oestrus in the alpha female stimulates other females to come into heat and the alpha male may then mate with other females after he has completed mating with the alpha female, usually after a remarkable 2400 mountings. Only a few young are produced in this way and it is thought that young born to subordinates are killed by the alpha female, known as infanticide.
Dwarf mongoose breed in summer when insects are plentiful and by four or five weeks old the babies begin to forage with the rest of troop, each one being escorted by a caretaker to show it what and how to eat. Until then, the helpless babies are carried between nighttime mounds by the alpha and other females.
If an alpha animal dies, the next high-ranked member of the troop will take over the role. Where there is a dispute as to the heir, a grooming contest ensues during which time the two contenders may groom one another for up to four days constantly until one is proved more persistent. By this time they will both be drenched in saliva.
By Megan Emmett