Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mongoose Crossing

On the way to Abydos I saw two strange large-ish short-legged animals crossing the road, one after another. They were about the size of a beaver, but not as bulky. More weasel-ish in shape. But, like beavers, they had tails that seemed disproportionate to the size of their body. The tails weren't flat and hairless like beaver tails, though. The tail, like the rest of the body, was covered in brown hair—the same color as a beaver.

I asked the driver what they were. He said "mongoose", without hesitation. In English, no less.

I've been in Egypt a year, and this was the first time I'd seen a mongoose. Very exciting, especially because my novel has a mongoose in it.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I didn't see any mongooses before. After all, my guide book to Egyptian mammals says that they don't exist in this part of Egypt at all—only in the Delta and Faiyum. It does say that there are older reports of sightings as far upriver as Asyut—which is a considerable distance downriver from this area.

All I can say is that I saw what I saw. It wasn't a mirage. The driver saw them too. And he didn't seem surprised to see them. So I guess they're not all that unusual around here after all. There just haven't been any official sightings.

I have a postcard of duck hunting and fishing in the marshes─a copy of a wall painting in Menna's tomb. There are various birds flying up from the papyrus plants. There are two animals in among the papyrus. One is climbing up the stalk of one of the plants, and the other is already reaching into a nest for the eggs. Now I can recognize animals as mongooses.

According to the guidebook, while there are many varieties of mongoose worldwide, the Egyptian variety is grizzled. Well, the pair I saw had rich brown fur. Perhaps grizzling would have been visible if I had been closer. The two mongooses in the ancient picture have blond fur. So I suppose there were more varieties in ancient Egypt than there are now.

It's hard to imagine how such a large-ish animals could climb papyrus stalks. But squirrels can perch on flimsy  branches. Their fur makes their bodies look much bulkier than they really are. The same must be true of mongoose.

Apart from eggs, mongooses eat a varied diet—including snakes!

The guidebook is: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt by Richard Hoath, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, New York, 2009. A very useful reference with good color pictures.

By the way, I always thought the plural of mongoose was unchanged—mongooses. But Prof. Hoath, Wikipedia, and all say mongooses.

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