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Mongoose Fends Off Lions: Explaining Viral Video

It’s not the size of the mongoose in the fight … Well, you know how the saying goes.

A video making the rounds this week depicts a marsh mongoose tussling with a group of four African lions and, incredibly, coming out unscathed.

The amazing footage, captured in 2011 by wildlife photographer Jérôme Guillaumot in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, was only recently released to the public. (Watch another video of a mongoose battling a lion.)

Guillaumot said it was the first time he’d seen such a behavior on any of his 20 expeditions to Africa.

“Of course I was sure that the mongoose would not escape this fight,” he told National Geographic by email. “As always in this type of situation, [it’s] a mix of excitement to [see] such a rare behavior and grief/empathy for the expected death of the small one.”

But what’s “most extraordinary … is the [fierce] defense of the mongoose and how its determination made [it] possible to face [its] opponents and eventually escape.”

We contacted Jenni Sanderson, a research fellow at the U.K.’s University of Exeter who’s worked extensively with banded mongooses in Uganda, by email to get her views on the startling spectacle.

What exactly is the mongoose doing here, in your opinion?

The mongoose looks like it is trying to defend itself and/or its territory from the lions. It’s possible that the mongoose has some pups in the den, and that could be why it is fighting so hard to scare the lions away. Nearly all animals become strangely aggressive when they have young to protect. (Learn about National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative.)

Can you speculate on the lions’ reactions?

It is important to point out that the lions in the video are quite young; you can tell that they are young because of the spotted patterns on their legs. [It could be] the young lions are only playing with it, rather than trying to eat it. I imagine that if the lions wanted to kill and eat the mongoose, then they could, quite easily. (See “‘Unusual’ Pictures: Lions vs. Hippo.”)

Is this kind of behavior common for a mongoose?

I don’t know how common it is for marsh mongooses, but I have seen banded mongooses attack many animals bigger than themselves, [such as] pythons, baboons, [and] monitor lizards. We are always bemused by the fact that the banded mongooses we study seem to attack pythons much more than is necessary. If they find one sleeping under a bush, they will attack it repeatedly—in fact, this even ended up with one of the banded mongooses being eaten by a python (something I don’t think would have happened if they had left it alone). (Watch video: “Stork vs. Mongoose.”)

Are they known to be aggressive animals?

Yes, mongooses are aggressive, but only when they need to protect themselves. The mongooses in India even fight off cobras—something made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.” Meerkats [which are a type of mongoose] can even kill and eat highly venomous scorpions! Mongooses may look and act cute most of the time, but underneath that they are very strong and can be very aggressive when they need to be.

Why would it keep fighting even after escaping into the safety of the burrow?

If the mongoose has some pups in the den, then it will become more likely to attack the lions when in or near its den. This is pure speculation, though, and it is difficult to say why the mongoose is behaving like that.

Tell us: What do you think the mongoose was doing?

Follow Stefan Sirucek on Twitter.

Comments

  1. IM
    Finland
    January 15, 2015, 6:13 pm

    You are putting too much emphasis on the “lions not being hungry”. The thing is, believe it or not, often courage and behaviour count as much as strength. Especially with young animals, even if they are trying to hunt, they may fail because of this. You can see this for instance from videos where young leopards get their asses handed over by different pig speacies – or other pray items. At the end, the lion is already defensive and not only playful – that is it was clearly slightly afraid of the small opponent. The same goes for the northern species where often small and fierce wolverine can defend a carcass against bears or wolves – if they are not highly motivated. The same goes here.

  2. ASHIS KUMAR RATH
    Bhubaneswar, Odisha
    September 22, 2014, 1:11 pm

    struggle for existence rightly marked by Charles DARWIN. each one of us keep on pouting the last battle to survive in this beautiful planet. befitting video captures.

  3. Norm
    Canada
    September 12, 2014, 9:25 am

    Very interesting story as clearly the big cats were more surprised than hungry…like the expert said probably a mommy protecting it s nest and btw thanks for the comment… Nicolene from South Africa also very interesting

  4. Nicolene
    South Africa
    September 12, 2014, 3:24 am

    I had a banded mongoose. I would not say as a pet, more like a family member and let me tell you, she was the baddest and best watchdog ever! We live on a small holding with a dirt road running past it. One day the TLB came to grade the road. 5 Big guys with spades was tworking in front of it aking out the big rocks. Now Bokkie did not like loud noises at all and this big yellow thing with it’s 5 minions did not sit well with her at all. So off she went before I could get her and all of a sudden a commotion of epic proportions erupted. All I could see was 5 grown men running screaming, spades flying all over the place with Bokkie in between their legs biting already bleeding ankles. The TLB driver thought he was safe up high in his vechile but it didn’t take her long to figure out there was someone missing and went back to find him. It took me a good hour to fetch them from the other side of the mountain, convincing them that she is locked up and can’t come out. On another day, I heard some one calling me from the gate. Upon inspection I couldn’t see anyone and as I turned around I heard a voice from up high calling me softly. The farm workers who was sent to fix the drain was sitting up in the highest branches of a coral tree. For those that don’t know – a coral tree has lots of huge thorns, and I think they outweighed the options and decided that the thorns would be better than a mongoose bite. I told them to climb down as the dogs were locked away, but they said they are not worried about the big Boerboel, the big Melamute or the American bulldog, they wanted to know where ‘that thing’ was!

    • Stefan Sirucek
      September 12, 2014, 3:14 pm

      Wow! That’s a wonderful story Nicolene. Thanks for the personal insights into just how fearless these animals are.

      It sounds like one mongoose is worth about 5 guard dogs!

  5. Hilary
    UK
    September 11, 2014, 9:01 am

    Plucky little chap, amazed he came out of his burrow again, to chase away the lions!

    • Stefan Sirucek
      September 11, 2014, 1:58 pm

      The mongoose’s reputation for fearlessness is well-earned!

  6. DaCruz
    nottingham
    September 11, 2014, 7:22 am

    This Mongoose is lucky,because those lions are very young.Well done any way,a fight is always worth it!!

    • Stefan Sirucek
      September 11, 2014, 2:00 pm

      True! The researcher I spoke with agreed that they were probably only playing with it like a cat plays with a mouse.

      But the mongoose didn’t know that!

  7. Yash
    Bangalore, India
    September 11, 2014, 4:18 am

    These lions definitely looked more on the curious side. They were having fun with the mongoose.

  8. Frank
    South Africa
    September 11, 2014, 1:10 am

    As much as I admire the tenacity of this Mongoose, and other lightweight fighters like honey Badgers, these Lions were clearly not after food.. In typical cat fashion, this lad, or young lady was merely a passing curiosity, and fortunate to evade a proper left or right hook, which would’ve ended the showdown in a second. Full marks for standing its ground though!

    • Stefan Sirucek
      September 11, 2014, 2:03 pm

      Very true. The lions, which were young as the biologist pointed out, certainly appeared more curious than hungry. I imagine even the tenacious mongoose was dazed after a few of those heavy bops to the head though.

  9. MK
    United States
    September 10, 2014, 11:29 pm

    Hopefully, the mongoose wasn’t rabid. Pretty abnormal behavior to emerge from the safety of the underground burrow to continue the fight.

  10. animalmanknowsall
    September 10, 2014, 10:21 pm

    Mongooses r pretty badass

  11. Elisa
    Brazil
    September 10, 2014, 9:06 pm

    It was protecting its life. So amazing

  12. Alex
    United States
    September 10, 2014, 8:50 pm

    It looks like the lions are more curious than predatory, which isn’t to say they wouldn’t have killed the mongoose playing with it.