Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/November 1898/The Mongoose in Jamaica




ABOUT fifteen or twenty years ago the mongoose (Herpestes griseus) was imported from India by the colonial government and introduced into the island of Jamaica, in the West Indies, for the ostensible purpose of destroying the large, gray, white-bellied rat which played havoc with the growing cane on the sugar plantations.

The mongoose belongs to the Viverridæ, or civet-cat family, which is closely allied to the Felidæ, one of the most widely diversified among the carnivora. But the mongoose differs materially from the civet cats, for it belongs properly to the subfamily Herpestiæ, or ichneumons, having toes slender and straight, and separate from one another; the scent glands, so highly developed in the civet cat, being either small or entirely absent. Most of the ichneumons are natives of Africa, but several are Indian, and one form (H. ichneumon) extends to southern Spain.

H. griseus is the true mongoose of India, and is the animal imported into Jamaica. In its native habitat it devours snakes, rats, lizards, and other creatures not in favor with humanity. Its color is gray, darker on the head and legs; its feet are blackish, and the end of the tail is tipped with black. Beneath the longer gray-or whiteringed hairs there is a fine, short, reddish under fur. The body of the full-grown animal is about twenty-one inches in length, and the tail eighteen inches.

Like Pharaoh's rat in Egypt, to which it is allied, the mongoose is highly valued in India, and is often kept tame about the houses for the services that it renders in destroying snakes and other plagues. It is especially famous for its prowess in destroying the deadly cobra, a feat performed by force of its superior boldness and activity.

That the little animal has fairly achieved the object for which it was imported can not be gainsaid, but that it would ever become the universal pest which it is at the present day, and has been for several years, was never anticipated. So long as it kept to the cane growing plantations, and ate the planter's poultry and all young and available animal life, all went well; but with its rapid and prolific powers of reproduction and its vagabond and roaming disposition, in a very short time it was found to be in every part of the island, from the seashore to the tops of the loftiest mountains, the highest peak of which is seventy-three hundred feet above the sea level.

Though it has not exterminated the cane rats, it has lessened their numbers, and saved the sugar planters a vast sum of money. But it has nearly exterminated the ground laying and feeding birds. It

The Mongoose (Herpestes griseus) in Jamaica.

devours poultry and eggs of all kinds, on the ground and in trees, including those of the land turtle, so that the latter, once very numerous and highly esteemed as an article of food by the native epicures, is now seldom found. Here may be mentioned an interesting fact, that the mongoose, in no way a tree-climbing animal in its native India, has become such in Jamaica, as its voracious appetite lessened the numbers of ground feeding and laying birds, and compelled it to take to the trees in order to enlarge its food supply.

The mongoose kills young pigs that roam, half wild, over the island; also lambs and kids. It eats fruits of all kinds, fish, wild fowl, snakes, lizards, and crabs; and the once plentiful edible lizards and land crabs are now rarely seen. All young and tender life, both animal and vegetable, is included in its daily menu. When the mongoose has cleared off all the animal life, it turns its attention to the "ground provisions," and here it shows the varieties of its tastes and the strength of its jaws. It will grovel with its paws until yams, cocos, sweet, potatoes, cassava both bitter and sweet, and other ground food tubers are laid bare.

Of fruit, the mongoose has a partiality for bananas, the mango, and others, as well as for some of the tree vegetables, such as the delicious akee (Cupania edulis), and the avocado, or alligator pear. It will, likewise, when the irrigating canals are drained for cleansing, seize fish and make off with them. Not the least harm it has done has been the destruction of insectivorous birds and lizards, and the consequent increase of another nuisance, the tick. This is a subject which the Jamaica Government is bound to take up in the near future, and there will be found only one remedy—the introduction, propagation, and protection of insect-eating birds, for the question of adopting some plan for the wholesale destruction of the mongoose has thus far proved fruitless.

The mongoose breeds six times a year, and each time there are from five to ten young ones. The animal lives in the hollows of trees, dry walls, and other similar places. Its activity is wonderful, and it very seldom misses its quarry, which, when secured, the mongoose proceeds to mutilate in the groin, first of all drinking the warm blood, then devouring the liver and heart.

In Jamaica there was a very beautiful indigenous snake (Chilobothrus inornatus), a friend of the agriculturist, commonly called the yellow or banana snake, which grew to a length of six or seven feet. It is practically extinct, for during the last five or six years it has been nearly impossible to find a specimen. This bloodthirsty little animal has also nearly exterminated another ally of the cultivator, a certain ground lizard (Anolis corsalis), which is now very rarely seen.

In its general appearance, except in point of size, it being much larger, it may be stated that the mongoose very closely resembles the common gray squirrel of the northern United States, although the latter does not have feet and tail tipped with black.

Comparing the flint implements of palæolithic and neolithic age, Prof. T. McKenny Huse exhibited at the British Archæological Institute a series of flints to illustrate his view that in their earlier stages of manufacture the palæolithic and neolithic implements passed through the very same steps—that is, a block of flint was first rough dressed by both palæolithic and neolithic people into the same general form. The neolithic man merely proceeded further on the same lines, afterward finding out the way to grind the edge, and at last the whole implement. With few exceptions, the author said, neolithic flints were found on the surface or in artificial excavations; whereas, as a rule, palæolithic implements were found in deposits that seemed to be due to the sweeping down into hollows or river terraces of surface soils in or on which the implements and other stones lay.