1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ichneumon

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Egyptian Ichneumon (Herpestes ichneumon).

ICHNEUMON (Gr. ἰχνεύμων, from ἰχνεύειν, to track out), the common name of the North African representative of a number of small weasel-shaped mammals belonging to the carnivorous family Viverridae; the Indian representatives of the group being known as mongooses. A large number of species of the type genus are known, and range over southern Asia and all Africa, the typical Herpestes ichneumon also occurring in the south of Spain. The latter is an inhabitant of Egypt and the north of Africa, where it is known to foreign residents as “Pharaoh’s rat.” It is covered with long harsh fur of a tawny-grey colour, darker on the head and along the middle of the back, its legs reddish and its feet and tail black. It lives largely on rats and mice, birds and reptiles, and for this reason it is domesticated. It is, however, fond of poultry and their eggs, and its depredations among fowls detract from its merits as a vermin-killer. During the inundations of the Nile it is said to approach the habitations of man, but at other seasons it keeps to the fields and to the banks of the river. The Indian mongoose (H. mungo) is considerably smaller than the Egyptian animal, with fur of a pale-grey colour, the hairs being largely white-ringed, while the cheeks and throat are more or less reddish. Like the former it is frequently domesticated. It is especially serviceable in India as a serpent-killer, destroying not only the eggs and young of these creatures, but killing the most venomous adult snakes. The fact that it survives those encounters has led to the belief that it either enjoys immunity from the effects of snake poison, or that after being bitten it has recourse, as the Hindus maintain, to the root of a plant as an antidote. It has been found, however, that when actually bitten it falls a victim to the poison as rapidly as other mammals, while there is no evidence of its seeking a vegetable antidote. The truth seems to be that the mongoose, by its exceeding agility and quickness of eye, avoids the fangs of the snake while fixing its own teeth in the back of the reptile’s neck. Moreover, when excited, the mongoose erects its long stiff hair, and it must be very difficult for a snake to drive its fangs through this and the thick skin which all the members of the genus possess. The mongoose never hesitates to attack a snake; the moment he sees his enemy, “his whole nature,” writes a spectator of one of those fights, “appears to be changed. His fur stands on end, and he presents the incarnation of intense rage. The snake invariably attempts to escape, but, finding it impossible to evade the rapid onslaught of the mongoose, raises his crest and lashes out fiercely at his little persecutor, who seems to delight in dodging out of the way just in time. This goes on until the mongoose sees his opportunity, when like lightning he rushes in and seizes the snake with his teeth by the back of the neck close to the head, shaking him as a terrier does a rat. These tactics are repeated until the snake is killed.” The mongoose is equally dexterous in killing rats and other four-footed vermin.