Small to medium-sized carnivores, civets are in the Viverridae family which includes genets, linsangs, and mongooses. There are 35 species of civets and genets in 20 genera. Their natural distribution is restricted to the warmer regions of the Old World, and they occupy a niche similarly filled by weasels and their relatives found in temperate deciduous forests. Civets vary in size and form, but most present a catlike appearance with long noses, slender bodies, pointed ears, short legs and generally a long furry tail.
Civets with a spotted or striped coat have five toes on each foot. There is webbing between the toes, and the claws are totally or semi-retractile. The pointed ears extend above the profile of the head. The ear flaps have pockets or bursae on the outside margins, similar to domestic cats. Their teeth are specialized for an omnivorous diet, including shearing carnassial teeth and flat-crowned molars in both upper and lower jaws. Teeth number from 38 to 40, depending on the species.
Primarily nocturnal foragers with semiarboreal and arboreal habits, civets typically ambush their prey. During the day, civets usually rest in a hollow tree, rock crevice or empty, shallow burrow. They are solitary animals maintaining a wide home range (250 acres [101 ha]) by scent marking trees on the borders of their territory. The term "civet" is derived from an Arabic word describing the oily fluid and its odor secreted by the perineal glands. Scent marking is important in civet communication, but the method differs among species from passively passing the scent when moving about causing the gland to rub vegetation, to squatting and then wiping or rubbing the gland on the ground or some prominent object.
Civet oil has been used in the perfume industry for centuries and has been recorded as being imported from Africa by King Solomon in the tenth century B.C. Once refined, civet oil is prized for its odor and long lasting properties. Civet oil is also valued for its medicinal uses which include the reduction of perspiration, a cure for some skin disorders and claims of aphrodisiac powers. Although the development of sensitive chemical substitutes has decreased the value of civet oil, it is still a part of some East African and Oriental economies.
The Viverridae family can be broken into six subfamilies. There are seven southern Asian and one African species of palm civets (subfamily Paradoxurinae). The African palm civet, also known as the two-spotted palm civet, spends most of its time in the forest canopy where it feeds primarily on fruit, occasionally supplemented with small mammals, birds, insects, and lizards. It is distinguished by its semi-retractile claws and perineal gland covered by a single fold of skin. All other species of palm civets live in the forests of Asia. Their semiarboreal life style is supported by sharp, curved, retractile claws, hairless soles, and partially fused third and fourth toes which add to a more sure-footed grasp. Although skillful climbers, they spend considerable time foraging on the ground for animals and fallen fruits. The broad-faced binturong, or bear cat, has a strong, muscular long-haired tail that is prehensile at the tip. This characteristic is unique among viverrids. The body hair is long and coarse. The ears have long black tufts of hair with white margins. Nearly four feet long, it is the largest member of the civet family. Despite its mostly vegetarian diet, the binturong has been reported to swim in rivers and prey on fish. The celebes, giant, or brown palm civet may be fairly common in certain limited areas (known by its tracks and feces, rather than by actual sightings). It is quite adept at climbing and has a web of thin skin between the toes.
There are five species of banded palm civets and otter civets (subfamily Hemigalinae), all living in the forests of Southeast Asia. Perhaps best known is the banded palm civet, named for the dark brown markings on its coat. The general coat color ranges from pale yellow to grayish buff. The face is distinctly marked by several dark longitudinal stripes. The coloration of the body is broken by about five transverse bands stretching midway down the flank. The tail is dark on its lower half, with two broad dark rings at the base. Foraging at night on the ground and in trees, the banded palm civet searches for rats, lizards, frogs, snails, crabs, earthworms and ants.
Otter civets could be mistaken for long-nosed otters. Similar in habit and appearance, otter civets are excellent swimmers and capable of climbing trees. Their toes are partially webbed, but their dense water repellant fur, thick whiskers, and valve-like nostrils are effective adaptations for living in water and preying on fish. There are two species which show differences in their coat coloration and number of teeth. Otter civets have smaller ears, blunter muzzles, shorter tails and more compact bodies than most banded palm civets.
There are 19 species of true civets and genets classified in the subfamily Viverrinae. One of the best known is the African civet. A rather large, heavily built, long-bodied and long-legged carnivore, it is the most doglike viverrid. Preferring to be near water, it lives in a variety of habitats ranging from moist tropical forest to dry scrub savannah. It is considered terrestrial, climbing trees only in an emergency such as when hunted. The African civet hunts exclusively on the ground at night, resting in thickets or burrows during the day. An opportunistic and omnivorous predator, it will eat carrion, but prefers small mammals. Birds, eggs, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, fruit, berries, and vegetation round out its diet. African civets deposit their droppings in one place creating middens or "civetries." Although typically found at territorial boundaries, they also mark their territory using their perineal gland.
Betsy A. Leonard
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