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The Binturong

By: Kevin Bird




The binturong is a member of the viverridae family which holds the distinction of being one of the most diverse of all carnivore families. There are a total of 66 separate species distributed throughout a wide range. The viverrids are a very ancient group of animals and are found only in the Old World ranging from southern Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, and on through the Middle East, India, and most of Southeast Asia (mainland and islands).

There are some interesting features of this family which set it apart from all others. Firstly, they all have bursae (except the true mongooses) which are slit like pockets along the edge of the ears, and secondly they all have scent glands.

In the mongooses they have anal glands producing musk whilst in others the scent is produced in the perineal gland near the genitals which produces a pungent oil called civet. There is a wide range of difference in sizes within this family the smallest being the Dwarf mongoose at less than 1 pound all the way up to the Fossa weighing in at around 45 pounds. (Note: Some sources state that the binturong is the largest) The binturong is found specifically on mainland Southeast Asia in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam and on the islands of Sumatra, Java, Borneo, and Palawan. In all locations they are to be found in tropical and sub-tropical rain forests where they spend all, or most, of their time in the trees rarely coming to the forest floor. Like most of their family they are primarily an arboreal animal and their bodies are designed accordingly. They have short powerful legs with 5 non-retractile claws on each foot for a good grip which is backed up by the bare, leathery soles of the feet allowing for traction. The tail is as long as the body, 2-3 ft, and is immensely strong with a small leathery patch at the end for extra grip. The tail is used much like a fifth limb allowing the animal to hold on with it's back legs and tail whilst reaching for a branch or food with the front legs. They are not adapted too well for life on the ground and are thus at risk from predation by animals such as leopards when out of the trees.

Their gait is much like that of a bear where the hind feet are placed in a plantigrade fashion as it walks with the whole foot touching the ground at the same time so they have an exaggerated sway as they move. Their heads are small in comparison to their bodies though they are made to look a little larger with tufts of hair on the tips of their ears. Their faces are much lighter in color than their bodies and are very similar in appearance to that of a raccoon, badger, or wolverine in many ways, especially at first glance.

In the wild, binturong will average about 25 - 30 pounds, making it the second largest in it's family, with the females being over 20% heavier! This is unique to the binturong within the viverrids and we have no strong reason why this difference occurs. There are some other differences which set the binturong apart from the rest of the viverrids. They are not striped or spotted but instead have a fairly solid black coat with white tips, this coat is very shaggy unlike the short coats normal in viverrids. The females have genitals which are similar in appearance to the males ( binturong evolved along the same ancient line that hyenas did where the females also exhibit male looking genitalia). In most other viverrids the scent glands are consciously applied to mark territory whereas the binturong has it's glands in such a position that as it moves through the trees the gland actually drags on the branches leaving a trail of scent behind it. The odor of this is said to be similar to popcorn. Also unique to the binturong is the prehensile tail mentioned above.

The average life span for a binturong in the wild can be up to 20 years which is a long time for a relatively small mammal. They seem to spend most of that time in small family groups consisting of mothers and young with the father around to help in the training of his offspring. There is little definitive evidence as to the true family structure of the binturong because of the habitat it lives in plus the fact that it is nocturnal. It is believed that the males do take an active role in the upbringing of the young teaching them how to survive in the trees. They become sexually active at around two and a half years old and have been known to breed in the spring and then again in the fall producing 1-2 cubs each time. Born in a tree hollow after a 90 day gestation period, the young are blind and their eyes open after about 10 days, then they leave the den at about 2 months. As stated both parents train their young which are fully grown and independent by 1 year old. It is not clear as to whether the male breeds with more than one female or is monogamous, though the first seems more likely. Binturong are known to be somewhat playful in the wild which is likely to be an ongoing method of keeping hunting and agility skills at a premium. They are kept as pets in some areas and so would seem to have a reasonably calm disposition.

Being a nocturnal animal the binturong has excellent night vision, good hearing and sense of smell reinforced by very long and sensitive facial whiskers. It is not a very fast animal and so, even though classified as a carnivore, it primarily eats fruits such as figs. The teeth of the binturong allow it to eat a wide variety of food, though it's canines are not as curved or sharp as a true carnivores would be and it's carnasials are not well developed. When the opportunity arises they will eat carrion, insects, lizards, eggs, chicks, and rodents. Apparently the binturong has no problems in swimming well enough to actually catch fish too! Their eating habits are therefore very omnivorous in nature much like a bears. In fact they are nicknamed "bearcat" which may have something to do with their diet but is more likely because their feet are like a bears whilst their slitted eyes are like those of a cat. The noises made by this animal are probably more like those of a bear being mostly grunts, snorts and snuffling.

It is unfortunate that more is not known about this animal as it seems to be unusual and therefore of special interest. There is much not yet understood and these omissions of information are very tantalizing. Being an arboreal, nocturnal animal living in some very remote, unfrequented rain forests has disallowed much research and at the same time has allowed the species to live with little direct human contact. As far as we can tell binturong are not in any immediate threat and only continued loss of habitat would dramatically change this scenario.

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