The Mongoose, the Hornbill, and the Termite

You wouldn’t think there would be much of a relationship between three such distinct entities, but it turns out the Dwarf Mongoose and the Yellow-billed Hornbill (subject of an earlier post on “flying bananas”) tend to congregate together at abandoned termite mounds, forming a tight interdependent connection with each other.

Dwarf Mongoose colony sunning on a termite mound

On cool spring mornings, Dwarf Mongooses sun themselves on their termite mound home to warm up.

Dwarf Mongoose colony

Dwarf Mongoose are highly social animals, living in colonies of up to 30 animals.

An abandoned or unused termite colony makes the perfect home for mongooses, because it is cool, well ventilated, and usually contains numerous chambers or rooms for the mongooses to use as a retreat from daytime heat or predators.

Dwarf Mongoose foraging

The problem with being a small mammal foraging for insects out on the open savannas of Southern Africa is vulnerability to predation from eagles.

and that’s where the “flying banana” (Yellow-billed Hornbill) comes in…

Yellow-billed Hornbill

Yellow-billed Hornbills can feast on some of the insects scared up by the Dwarf Mongoose’s foraging.  In fact, they have learned to congregate in areas where Dwarf Mongoose colonies are located, because of the increased activity of insect prey there.

The Hornbills are wary birds, cognizant of potential predation by raptors, and will screech in alarm when one is sighted, allowing the mongooses to scramble for cover.  As a result, mongooses don’t tend to come out to forage unless a number of hornbills are present, and hornbills only congregate where there are dwarf mongoose colonies.

And it all starts with the termites that built the durable tower of mud and saliva over hundreds of years.

Termite mounds

Termite mounds in Hwange national park, Zimbabwe, dwarf our safari vehicle in height. They are complex structures inside, with ventilation shafts that encourage air flow and maintain a constant temperature, as well as providing chambers for the development of larvae and pupae.

Mound-building termites (not close relatives of social bees and wasps, but of social cockroaches!) typically locate their home near a source of vegetation, like a rotting tree or shrub thicket.  They harvest the woody vegetation to provide a source of nutrition for a particular fungus which they grow in chambers called “gardens” within the mound, regulating the temperature and airflow to be conducive to fungus growth.  They then live off the fungus garden.

termite mound

The mound is remodeled each day, bringing more termite mud to the surface, adding or resculpting chambers, etc., and modifying the airflow for current outdoor conditions.  The colonies might persist for hundreds of years, with a queen producing millions of offspring, until it finally collapses, leaving a vacant structure for others to take over — like the Dwarf Mongoose.

5 thoughts on “The Mongoose, the Hornbill, and the Termite

  1. I’m sure glad you showed us what a termite mound looked like–I was imagining something a lot smaller. It’s always fascinating to see the kind of symbiotic relationships that are established in nature. By the way, I really like the title of your posting–it sounded like it was going to be a fable of the same genre as Aesop’s Fables.

    • Aren’t they amazing — far bigger than I expected as well. But the truly amazing thing is their longevity, with colonies living there hundreds of years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s