New research shows that mongooses living in large groups have more specialised diets

  • Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dr Harry Marshall, Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Roehampton, has completed a study offering new insights to how animals living in groups affects animals’ foraging behaviour.

A study at the Banded Mongoose Research Project in Uganda, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Exeter, has shown for the first time how banded mongooses, a sociable and fiercely territorial species, respond to in-group competition for food by adopting individual dietary preferences.

The banded mongoose (Mungos mungo) has long been noted—and studied—for the challenges its social structure poses to traditional evolutionary theory. Natural selection is thought to encourage selfish behaviour at the individual level, but mongooses demonstrate a high level of cooperation by helping to rear the offspring of other group members. This aspect of their social structure is thought to be unusual, even compared with other highly social species.

Dr Marshall’s study, carried out on the Mweya Peninsula, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, over a period of two years, tested two contrasting hypotheses: would competition among mongooses of the same group encourage or discourage individual foraging specialisation—the tendency of individuals to favour particular foods?

Scientists working on the project were able to determine how specialised the mongooses’ diets were by taking samples of their vibrissae (whiskers). Chemical analysis of the whiskers allowed them to determine how varied the mongooses’ diets were. They measured how broad or narrow their foraging niche and their diet was.

The analysis showed that the mongooses in larger groups experienced greater within-group competition for food and had more specialised diets. This suggests that dietary specialisation may be one way that group-living animals reduce conflict within the groups.

Dr Marshall said ‘This kind of study has never previously been conducted with mongooses. This research confirms the hypothesis, that mongooses adopt niche dietary preferences in response to competition from within their social groups’.

Dr Marshall continues to work with the Banded Mongoose Research Project, which has been studying the mongooses of Mweya for nearly a quarter of a century. Find out more about this and related projects on the Socialis website. To read the article about this project please click here

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