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Interspecific associations of Cape ground squirrels with two mongoose species: benefit or cost?

Jane M. Waterman, James D. Roth
Behavioral ecology and sociobiology 2007 v.61 no.11 pp. 1675-1683
Bitis arietans, Cynictis, Suricata suricatta, Xerus inauris, antipredatory behavior, burrows, ecosystem engineers, habitats, predators, semiarid zones, snakes, squirrels, thermoregulation
Mixed-species associations have been described in many vertebrate species, but few behavioral studies have investigated associations between species from different mammalian orders. Cape ground squirrels (Xerus inauris) are highly social rodents that inhabit burrows with two species of mongoose, but the benefits of these interspecific associations to ground squirrels remain unresolved. We compared the behavior of squirrels while solitary, with conspecifics, and in the presence of suricates (Suricata suricatta) and yellow mongooses (Cynictis pencillatus). Squirrels spent less time alert and more time feeding when suricates were present, but increased vigilance in the presence of yellow mongooses. In a series of mobbing trials with a puff adder (Bitis arietans), a common predator of all three species, Cape ground squirrels were the most active in mobbing the snake. Our results suggest that Cape ground squirrels benefit from associating with suricates, but not necessarily with yellow mongooses. Both mongoose species benefit from the burrowing activities of the squirrels for thermoregulation and escape from predators, and a suite of other organisms may similarly benefit from the habitat modifications by Cape ground squirrels, suggesting they could be considered ecosystem engineers of the arid and semi-arid regions of southern Africa. Thus, the association between Cape ground squirrels and suricates appears mutually beneficial, whereas yellow mongooses may merely be commensals of the squirrels.