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Is This Mongoose Playing Dead or Just Playing? Video Cracks Up Experts

A dwarf mongoose and a Southern yellow-billed hornbill engage in never-before-seen behavior in footage captured in South Africa.

Between banshee-like lynx brawls and cannibalistic red squirrels, life in the animal kingdom can sometimes feel like a nonstop conveyor belt of scary. But every so often, a bit of goof breaks through the doom.

Today, that cheerfulness comes in the form of a dwarf mongoose in the Sabi Sands Game Reserve that just wants to have some fun.

In a video posted by the program Safari Live, a juvenile dwarf mongoose can be seen repeatedly walking up to a southern yellow-billed hornbill and then keeling over like a fainting goat. (Watch daily live broadcasts on the Safari Live Facebook page.)

The bird, it should be noted, does not seem impressed. (Read about five trickster animals that play dead.)

"It went on for probably about 10 minutes," says Tayla McCurdy, the WildEarth safari guide who can be heard in the video laughing so hard she has to stop to breathe.

"I don't think I’ll ever see anything like that ever again in my life."

A Theatrical Mongoose

Scientists have documented many different species that "play dead," including beetles, opossums, and snakes. The behavior, also known as thanatosis, is a strategy to trick predators into thinking their potential prey has expired.

Is that what's going on here? Experts think not.

"In my opinion this is not a case of them playing dead, rather attempting to play with the hornbill," says Julie Kern, an honorary research associate at the U.K.'s University of Bristol and founder of the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project. (Learn more about how animals play—even crocodiles.)

Lynda Sharpe, a behavioral ecologist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, adds by email that dwarf mongooses will often roll on their backs when playing with other mongooses.

"Lying on one's back is an almost irresistible lure to a playful mongoose because it says, 'Come and get me, I'll let you win,'" says Sharpe.

Watch a Snake-Eating Mongoose Swing From Its Prey Oct. 3, 2017 - This snake has tangled with one of the most feared predators of the African savannah—the mongoose. Mongooses are famously known to boldly attack venomous snakes such as cobras. Primarily found in Africa, they can range in size from 7 inches to 2 feet. After struggling to pull the snake down, the mongoose eventually got its slithery prize.

Click here to read Watch a Mongoose Swing From a Deadly Snake.

But a mongoose and a hornbill? That’s a little weird.

"I've spent 11 years studying full-time the behavior of dwarf mongooses, but I've never seen them invite play from a bird before,” says Sharpe.

Hunting Buddies

Even if mongooses and hornbills aren’t known for their play dates, they do have a well-documented work relationship.

"Hornbills often forage with dwarf mongoose groups," says Kern. "They provide an extra lookout system which benefits the mongooses, while themselves benefiting from insect prey stirred up by the mongooses' foraging." (Read how snakes gang up to hunt prey.)

Both mongooses and hornbills like to fatten up on grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, beetles, and basically any other critter they can get their jaws around.

"Amazingly, the hornbills make no attempt to eat the mongooses' tiny pups, although they happily eat other vertebrates of this size," says Sharpe. "And the mongooses have no hesitation in letting their minuscule pups run around under the hornbills' feet."

Kenn Kaufman, field editor for the National Audubon Society, confirms that while both mongooses and hornbills keep an eye out for predators, the hornbills have keen eyes that are much more likely to spot distant raptors.

In some areas, the association between the two species is so strong the birds have been observed waiting for the mongooses to get up in the morning.

"It’s like they're saying, 'Can the mongooses come out and play?'" he laughs.

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