Civets, Genets, and Linsangs: Viverridae

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Viverrids (civets, genets, and linsangs) have long, slender bodies and short legs. Some have a uniform coloration, while others are marked with spots, bars, or both. The fur is short. The tail, sometimes longer than the body, is bushy and may be ringed with alternating dark and light colors. The snout is pointed, and the ears are erect. Most have five toes on each paw. Viverrids are the only carnivores with perineal (per-uh-NEE-uhl) glands (perfume glands between the anus and the genital organs) that produce a strong-smelling substance used for defense, territory marking, and sexual communication. These glands are most developed in civets and genets.


Viverrids are found in western Europe (including France, Portugal, and Spain), Southeast Asia (including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia), and most of Africa.


Viverrids occupy tropical deciduous forests that provide canopies (uppermost layer of a forest consisting of spreading branches). They also inhabit tall grasses and thick brush for cover. Some prefer wetlands, while others live near rivers and streams.


Most viverrids eat rodents, insects, reptiles, frogs, birds, crabs, carrion (dead and decaying flesh), eggs, fruits, and nuts. Palm civets are predominantly frugivores, eating pulpy fruits and berries.


Viverrids are generally solitary, although some may live in pairs or small groups. The palm civet and the African linsang are almost exclusively arboreal (tree-dwelling). The otter civet and the aquatic genet live near rivers and streams.

Most viverrids scent mark territories and tree branches with perineal secretions. They also deposit feces on rocks, topping them with perineal secretions to advertise ownership. Some species produce sounds, including hisses, screams, and coughs. Some breed throughout the year. Others breed during certain seasons. Some may give birth two or three times a year. The average litter size is two to three kittens; up to six may be born. Kittens are born with a full coat, although the markings may not be clear. Males do not share in parenting.


Viverrid meat is consumed by some people. Some species are kept as pets to control rodents. Humans sometimes kill those that attack poultry and lambs. Oil from the civet is valued by perfume makers for enhancing the quality of fragrances.

In 2002, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in southern China was linked to the consumption of masked palm civet. SARS is an infectious, potentially deadly disease. When the World Health Organization announced the end of the SARS outbreak in July 2003, more than 8,000 cases had been reported in 27 countries, with 774 deaths. In January 2004, when SARS resurfaced in China, authorities ordered the killing of all palm civets raised on farms. Other animals, including the raccoon dog and the Chinese ferret badger, also carry the SARS virus. These are not eaten by humans and have not been destroyed.


The IUCN lists eight species as threatened. The Malabar civet is classified as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction, due to habitat loss, predation, and hunting by humans. The otter civet and the crested genet are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction, because of habitat loss/degradation, predation, and hunting by humans. Five species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction, mostly because of habitat loss/destruction and hunting by humans. These are Owston's palm civet, Hose's palm civet, the Malagasy civet, the Sulawesi palm civet, and Jerdon's palm civet.


Physical characteristics: The African civet's fur ranges from silvery gray to creamy yellow with black-brown markings arranged in rows. A black mane of hair from the neck to the tail is erected when the civet gets scared or excited, making the animal seem larger. A black mask covers the eyes, with grayish fur above the eyes all the way to the small, round ears. The snout is black, with white on each side. A white stripe bordered by black stripes runs from the neck down to the front of the shoulders. This distinctive feature may serve to direct harmless, playful bites during mock-fighting or mating. The tail is partly ringed with alternating black and lighter colors, with solid black on the bottom half. Black legs and feet have long, curved claws. The perineal glands produce an oily substance called civet that is used in the perfume industry. The civet uses this secretion for scent marking its territory. The body length is 27 to 33 inches (67 to 84 centimeters), and the tail is another 13 to 19 inches (34 to 47 centimeters). The largest of the viverrids, the African civet weighs about 22 to 38 pounds (10 to 17 kilograms).

Geographic range: African civets occur in countries south of the Sahara Desert, including Senegal, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the island of Zanzibar.

Habitat: African civets prefer woodlands and areas of tall grasses and dense shrubs for resting and cover. Mothers and young nest in tangled roots and burrows (holes) abandoned by other animals.

Diet: African civets are omnivores, feeding on plants and animals. They eat mainly fruits, supplementing them with rodents, insects, reptiles, frogs, birds, crabs, and carrion. They can eat up to 4 pounds (2 kilograms) of food per feeding, but can fast (go without food) for up to two weeks. They sometimes take poultry and lambs in human environments.

Behavior and reproduction: African civets are solitary, except when mating and raising young. They are nocturnal (active at night), sleeping by day in tangled growths of vegetation or in tall grasses. They defend territories, marking boundaries with perineal secretion. Females use this secretion to advertise readiness to mate. Civets also deposit feces in piles, topped with the secretion, for identification and to claim ownership of a territory. Civets communicate through different sounds, including screams, growls, and coughs.

Mating occurs throughout the year. Females give birth two to three times a year, usually to two to three young. Young civets are quite developed when born, having a full coat with faint markings and able to crawl right away. The mother introduces solid food to her young after about a month and a half. Before this event, the young perform a unique behavior called mouth suckling, in which they drink the mother's saliva by licking her mouth. However, they continue nursing up to fourteen to sixteen weeks of age.

African civets and people: For centuries, the perfume industry has used the perineal secretion from African civets, called civet or civet oil, to make fragrances last longer. Although artificial civet oil has been available since the 1940s, some perfumers prefer the real thing. In Ethiopia, civet continues to be extracted from caged animals. African civets are sometimes considered pests for preying on poultry and lambs.

Conservation status: The African civet is not a threatened species. ∎


Physical characteristics: The common genet has a slender, flexible body that enables it to go through narrow openings to pursue rodents, their main prey. A yellowish or grayish coat is covered with black or brown markings arranged in rows. When threatened or scared, the hair covering the back is erected to give the appearance of a larger size. The long tail has alternating dark and light rings. The snout is pointed, and the ears are rounded. White coloration covers the areas around the eyes and mouth. The sharp claws, used for climbing trees and catching prey, are sharpened on tree barks and kept in a protective sheath when not in use. Secretions from the perineal glands are used to mark territory and as a means of communication. The body length is 17 to 22 inches (43 to 55 centimeters). The tail measures 13 to 16 inches (33 to 51 centimeters). Weight is about 3 to 6 pounds (1.5 to 2.5 kilograms).

Geographic range: The common genet is found in France, Portugal, Spain, Arabia, northern Africa (including Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt), and all African countries south of the Sahara Desert.

Habitat: Common genets inhabit forested areas where they have trees for climbing and tree hollows for sleeping and resting. Grasslands provide cover for stalking and ambushing prey. They also live near humans, such as in barns and parks.

Diet: Common genets are omnivores, eating rodents, frogs, reptiles, insects, and fruits. They prey on nesting birds and occasionally take poultry.

Behavior and reproduction: The common genets are equally at home on the ground and in tree branches. They are active at night, sleeping during the day in a tree hollow or a burrow abandoned by another animal. They are solitary, communicating with one another using perineal secretions to mark ground surfaces and tree branches. They make catlike sounds, such as meows and purrs. They also growl and hiss. Genets pair off briefly to mate, mostly in February and March. In summer, the mother gives birth to a litter of one to four kittens, but normally two to three, nursing them for about two months.

Common genets and people: Genets are sometimes kept as pets to control rodents. They occasionally prey on poultry and game birds.

Conservation status: The common genet is not a threatened species. ∎



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