Communication in the yellow mongoose, Cynictis penicillata

Le Roux, Aliza (2007-12)

Thesis (PhD (Botany and Zoology))--University of Stellenbosch, 2007.


Improved anti-predator protection has been postulated to be the primary advantage of sociality in the family Herpestidae. Therefore, the yellow mongoose, Cynictis penicillata, is considered an anomaly in the family because it may den socially with conspecifics, cooperating in the rearing of young and territory defence, but inevitably forages alone. I studied the communicative and anti-predator behaviour of a population of yellow mongooses which exhibited a lower degree of sociality than populations studied elsewhere. The yellow mongoose’s flexible social nature was evident in its vocal repertoire. Although its vocal repertoire was smaller and less context-specific than those of social mongooses, it had a large proportion (over 50%) of affiliative vocalizations, suggesting that individuals show a higher degree of cooperation than strictly solitary species. During predator encounters yellow mongooses used a simple urgency-based alarm call repertoire, indicating high and low urgency threat with two separate call types. The social environment strongly affected the alarm communication of yellow mongooses – vocal alarms were displayed almost exclusively by individuals in a group, whereas the visual alarm (a raised tail) was displayed by solitary individuals, when predators were outside the range from which they were potentially dangerous. This was a clear demonstration of the ‘audience effect’ – a phenomenon whereby animals adjust their communicative signals depending on the audience that is present. Until this study, the audience effect has only been demonstrated in obligate social species. The yellow mongoose’s social flexibility was further reflected in its territorial scent marking behaviour. In contrast to high density populations, where subordinate individuals contribute significantly to territory defence and scent marking, only the dominant male marked and defended territory borders in this low density population. Dominant males appeared to overmark the small number of cheek marks that females deposited, especially during the breeding season, which suggests that cheek marks were used in mate guarding. The yellow mongoose showed less flexibility in responses to conspecifics while foraging: the presence of group members appeared to make foragers more nervous, as individuals increased vigilance and decreased foraging success when group members were nearby. This could not be attributed to foraging competition, which happened very rarely. Yellow mongooses relied on a form of vigilance that allowed them to continue foraging while remaining alert, which contrasted with meerkats, Suricata suricatta, that had to interrupt foraging in order to be vigilant. The foraging patterns of yellow mongooses and meerkats differed markedly, and both species appeared to be inflexible in these patterns. I have proposed, therefore, that rigid vigilance patterns of vigilance are the reason why yellow mongooses forage alone, despite showing other cooperative tendencies. This study highlights that the selective forces acting on group living and group foraging are very different, and that the group-size effect – which postulates that individual vigilance declines as group size increases – may not be applicable to species adapted to solitary foraging.

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