What is a Mongoose? - Anatomy, Family & Diet

Instructor: Jennifer Pettigrew

Jennifer has a master's degree in nursing and been a clinical instructor for BSN students.

Mongooses are small mammals with many unique characteristics. In this lesson we'll learn more about what makes mongooses so interesting, including what they eat, what they look like, and what makes them able to battle a full-grown cobra!

Meet the Mongoose

Have you heard of a small, furry animal that can withstand the bite of one of the world's most venomous snakes? Certain species of mongooses can not only withstand the bite, but also engage in a potentially deadly 'dance' with a king cobra, dodging the bites until the snake is worn out. Then the mongoose sinks its teeth into the snake's skull! This relationship between mongooses and king cobras was immortalized in the story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (part of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling), in which a pet mongoose saves a family from a pair of conniving cobras.

Illustration from Rikki-Tikki-Tavi showing a mongoose squaring off with a cobra
Rikki Tikki Tavi mongoose cobra


There are 34 species within the family Herpestidae, although 5 of those species don't have the word mongoose in their species name. The term 'family', in this case, is part of an animal's taxonomic classification, which is a method of grouping living things together based on shared characteristics. In the Herpestidae family there are the 29 species with 'mongoose' in their name, the 4 species of kusimanses, and 1 species of meerkat.

A pack of banded mongooses at a zoo in Barcelona, Spain
pack of banded mongooses

Members of this family are primarily terrestrial (land-dwelling) animals, though some spend part of their lives in treetops or in the water. Many members of the family Herpestidae are solitary animals, but some have social and family groupings. Probably the most well-known member of this family that lives in a social group is the meerkat. The Gambian mongoose, Banded Mongoose, and Dwarf mongoose are other examples of mongooses living in social groups.


Mongooses are slender mammals that can range in size from 7 inches long to 25 inches long (excluding the tail). Often the tail is almost as long as the rest of the body and head. Mongooses can weigh between 1 and 11 pounds. Mongooses have tapered faces and small, rounded ears. They all have claws, which they mostly use for burrowing.

The Common Dwarf Mongoose is the smallest species of mongoose

Many species have a scent gland that they use to spray and mark their territory. Some of the more social species of mongoose even use it to mark their fellow pack members.

The pupils of mongooses are horizontal.

Some species of mongoose have developed an adaptation to their nerve cells which gives them resistance to some venoms, including that of the king cobra (Although if the snake strikes enough times, the mongoose can become ill enough to die.). The king cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world (reaching up to 18 feet in length), and their venom is so deadly that one bite can kill an elephant, which is why it's so notable that a small animal like a mongoose is resistant.

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