Common names: Water mongoose, marsh mongoose (English); kommetjiegatmuishond (Afrikaans).

Derivation of name:

The Afrikaans name, kommetjiegatmuishond, refers to the sac that surrounds the anal opening and its associated glands like a cup – a feature also occurring in other viverrids (civets, genets and mongooses). The common name, water or marsh mongoose, comes from its occurrence in areas adjacent to rivers, streams and dams.

The water mongoose is the only member of the genus Alitax, which is included in the mongoose family Herpestidae. It is a large and robust mongoose species that occurs throughout sub-Saharan Africa and is common in areas adjacent to rivers, streams and dams. The water mongoose is a solitary and nocturnal species that feeds on aquatic prey such as crabs, prawns, fish and frogs. It is well adapted to living in semi-aquatic habitats and has features such as strong, non-retractable claws that are well suited for digging and grabbing food and feet that have no webbing between the digits which, when walking, tend to spread out, helping them to walk on muddy surfaces. They also have a well-developed sense of smell to find and locate potential food sources. The water mongoose is generally widespread and common in its natural range and no conservation actions are recommended.

How to recognise a water mongoose

The water mongoose is a large and robust mongoose with an overall length of 0.8-1.0 m and a weight of between 2.5 and 4.2 kg. Body colour varies from almost black to rusty brown, but it is usually dark brown.

The water mongoose has an overall shaggy/grizzled appearance from the guard coat hairs that are annulated or striped. The under fur is soft and woolly, with the colour varying from dark greyish-brown to black.

The hair in front of the ears grows very long and thick and completely covers the external ear when the mongoose is swimming, protecting the ear from getting water in it. The tail is short, with a length of 300–410 mm.

Getting around

The fore and hind feet are pre-adapted to walking on wet and muddy substrates. The feet have five digits with no inter-digit webbing (in contrast to other mongoose species) and, when walking, the digits tend to spread out, which facilitates walking on muddy substrates.


Communication is achieved through vocalisations, behavioural displays and chemical communication. Water mongooses have specific calls for certain behaviour such as mating, antagonistic encounters, distress or warning, and for attention seeking or appeasement. Behavioural displays include facial expressions (mouth movements) and body postures to communicate threats or aggressive behaviour. Chemical communication involves scent-marking through defecation, urination, anal-marking and cheek rubbing. Anal glands are located within an anal pouch and produce a strong-smelling and volatile fluid that is used to dissuade potential predators. The cheek glands produce a less foul-smelling secretion that is used in scent-marking.


Water mongooses are widely distributed and common in sub-Saharan Africa except in the dry regions of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. They occur as far south as South Africa, throughout central Africa up to Ethiopia, and western Africa as far as Senegal. In South Africa they occur in Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State. In the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape the water mongoose occurs in areas with rivers and permanent water bodies such as vleis and dams, but is absent in drier parts.


Water mongooses are mainly associated with rivers, streams, marshes, swamps, dams and estuaries. They may, however, move some distance away from water in search of food. The resting sites often include rocky areas in streams or near dams.


The water mongoose mainly eats aquatic prey such as crabs, prawns, fish and frogs. They are also known to take terrestrial prey such as mammals, birds, insects, reptiles as well as plant material. They are able to open mussels and crabs by hurling them down against a rock from a standing position.



Water mongooses are seasonal breeders and litters of two to three young are born in early spring to mid-summer (August to December). The gestation period varies from 69 to 80 days. The pups are born fully furred and the males grow slightly faster than the females. The eyes open at 11 days. The young start to take food after about a month. In captivity the water mongoose is known to live for up to 17 years.

Water mongoose

Family life

They are solitary, nocturnal and only seek out mates during the breeding season. The mother cares for the young and interactions such as play and mutual grooming have been observed between the mother and young.


Friends and foes 

Water mongooses are preyed on by eagles and other large birds-of-prey, jackals and snakes.

Smart strategies

When cornered or terrified, the water mongoose excretes a strong smelling, volatile anal fluid and curls itself into a ball to evade a potential pursuer. It also escapes danger by taking to the water, where it may swim away with its head and back emergent, or dive and hide with just its nose sticking out of the water.

It is able to stand bipedally on its hind legs to scan its surroundings. The brain is large and associated with increased touch sensitivity and muscular control of the forepaws; characteristics that enable it to locate and eat crabs and other relatively hard-bodied prey. It is rumoured to swim almost as well as otters, by undulating movements of its body, despite the absence of webbing between the toes and the fact that the under-fur becomes waterlogged.

The water mongoose has strong, non-retractable claws, which are well suited for digging and grabbing food. They also have a well-developed sense of smell to find and locate potential food sources. It has been reported that water mongooses are able to capture bird-prey by lying motionless on their back while exposing their pale pink anal area to attract birds to approach and peck at the anus, whereupon the birds are seized as soon as they start pecking at the anus.

Conservation status and what the future holds

The water mongoose is fairly common and populations are stable in their natural habitat. It is therefore not listed in the South African Red Data Book or any CITES Appendices. There are no major threats, although the water mongoose may be vulnerable to habitat-modification and -loss through pollution and siltation.


The water mongoose is the only species in the genus Alitax, which is in the family Herpestidae. In southern Africa the family Herpestidae is represented by 14 species and these include the suricate, Suricata suricatta; dwarf mongoose, Helogale parvula; white-tailed mongoose, Ichneumia albicauda; yellow mongoose, Cynictis penicillata; banded mongoose, Mungos mungo; Meller’s mongoose, Rhynchogale melleri; Selous’s mongoose, Paracynictis selousi; small grey mongoose, Galerella pulverulenta; large grey mongoose, Herpestes ichneumon; the slender mongooses, Galerella sanguinea, G. swalius and G. nigrata; and the bush-tailed mongoose, Bdeogale crassicauda.

Scientific classification

Name: Atilax paludinosus (Cuvier, 1826)
Order: Carnivora
Family: Herpestidae
Genus: Atilax
Species: A. paludinosus

References and further reading

  • Estes, R.D. 1997. The behaviour guide to African mammals. Russel Friedman Books, South Africa.
  • Burger, G. 1997. The mammals guide of southern Africa. Pretoria, South Africa.
  • Skinner, J.D. & Smithers, R.H.N. 1990. The mammals of the southern African subregion. University of Pretoria, Pretoria.
  • Skinner J.D. & Chimimba C.T. 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion (3rd Edition). Cambridge University Press
  • Mills, G. & Hes, L. 1997. The complete book of southern African mammals. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.

Author: Sizwe Xolani Jobe
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden
July 2014

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