Golden Palm Civets (Paradoxurus zeylonensis): Non-Ringtail Mysteries of Sri Lanka

by DerdriuMarriner

Golden palm civets are gold-colored. They drink palm flower sap. But they may be Asian common palm civet morphs, not one of Sri Lanka's dry-, intermediate-, and wet-zone endemics.

Sri Lanka’s civets belong to one of three groups. Food and homelands define membership:
• Civets endemic (native exclusively) to the North Indian Ocean’s resplendent isle and fond of palm tree fermented juice and pulpy fruit;
• Civets native from East to South and Southeast Asia and partial to palm tree pulp and toddies;
• Civets native to East, South, and Southeast Asia and non-fixated upon palm tree fruits and juices.

The categories get filled respectively by:
• Golden palm civets (Paradoxurus zeylonensis);
• Palm civets (P. hermaphroditus);
• Small Indian civets (P. indica).

The last two categories still have their historical occupants. The first category -- of endemics -- is relevant too. But history’s golden palm civets in fact may not exist.

Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier, known as Georges Cuvier, provided, in 1822, an early description of Golden Palm Civets.

portrait by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree (February 22, 1773 - December 15, 1839)
portrait by Mattheus Ignatius van Bree (February 22, 1773 - December 15, 1839)

 

The existence of golden palm civets emerges through:

  • Many specimens in Colombo (Sri Lanka), London (England), and Paris (France);
  • Multiple identifications by William Thomas Blanford (October 7, 1832 – June 23, 1905) in 1885, Georges-Frédéric Cuvier (June 28, 1773 – July 24, 1838) in 1822, Edward Frederick Kelaart (November 21, 1819 – August 31, 1860) in 1852, and Reginald Innes Pocock (March 4, 1863 – August 9, 1947) in 1933.

Peter Simon Pallas’s (September 22, 1741 – September 8, 1811) pioneering description in 1777 still exists in Johann Christian Daniel Edler von Schreber’s  (January 17, 1739 – December 10, 1810) publication Die Säugetiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen (“Mammals Illustrated from Nature with Descriptions”) of 1778. But his specimen is unavailable.

 

"Portrait of Paul I of Russia": Misidentification of civet specimen from Paul I's nature cabinet caused scientific puzzlement for 2+ centuries ~

c. 1800 oil portrait by Vladimir Lukich Borovikovsky (Russian: July 24 O.S. (August 4, N.S.) 1757 – April 6 O.S. (April 18, N.S.) 1825)
Russian Museum, Room 12, Mikhailovsky Palace, St. Petersburg, northwestern Russia
Russian Museum, Room 12, Mikhailovsky Palace, St. Petersburg, northwestern Russia

 

The specimen which inspires a taxonomic description assumes importance as a physical record to be consulted before altering, rejecting, or validating its identification. The Pallas presentation can be considered controversial in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and problematic in the twenty-first century. It draws upon one specimen from the nature cabinet of Paul I (October 1, 1754 – March 23, 1801) during the subsequently assassinated Russian Emperor’s years as Crown Prince. The Pallas specimen enters into the historical and scientific record because of the Berlin-born German botanist and zoologist’s access to imperial collections by invitation of Empress Catherine II (May 2, 1729 – November 17, 1796). But nobody today has access to the specimen or knowledge of its whereabouts.

 

In 1777 Peter Simon Pallas described a civet specimen in the collection of Russian King Paul I as a Golden Palm Civet; his description remains but the specimen is long missing.

18th century portrait engraving by A. Tardieu
B. E. Raikov Russkie biologi-evolutionisty do Darvina. Vol. 1 (1952), after p. 64
B. E. Raikov Russkie biologi-evolutionisty do Darvina. Vol. 1 (1952), after p. 64

 

Specialists variously attribute cub-, kit-, and pup-like similarities to civet physiques. The Pallas description begins with the title Der Boshond (“The bush dog”). It concentrates on:

  • Blackened rump and tail;
  • Brown-overlaid grey upper-coat;
  • Dog-like lower lips;
  • Five-digited paws;
  • Light under-coat;
  • Long, thick-based tail;
  • Marten-like, thin fur;
  • Same-colored neck and throat;
  • Super-visible bristle-bearing warts;
  • White beard bristles ordered into five rows and reaching backward past flat, soft-haired ears.

But it does not match the subsequent Blanford, Cuvier, Kelaart, and Pocock descriptions and specimens. Three features emerge as particularly troublesome:

  • Black posterior;
  • Ears in the path of backward-curving whiskers;
  • White whiskers.  

They find resolution in the twenty-first century as characteristics of morphs (variants) of Asia’s common, ubiquitous palm civet.

 

Asian Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus): Troublesome features of Peter Simon Pallas' description seem to find resolution as a morph of Asian Common Palm Civet.

Luwac (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus)
Luwac (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus)

 

Scientific nomenclature can be accepted, changed, or ejected. Side-lining from prevailing, proper terminology generally comes about through:

  • Genetic evidence;
  • Physical features.

The Pallas identification apparently describes the physique of a species whose presentation dates back to the same year, 1777, by the same taxonomist. But its questionability does not necessarily challenge the taxonomist’s qualifications since proper observations depend upon:

  • Ambiance (impacted by inadequate space, poor lighting);
  • Expertise;
  • Procedure;
  • Specimens (damaged by conditions of capture or types of preservatives);
  • Timeline.  

Its questionability indicates merely a need to retire the classification, not the notion of Sri Lanka-only palm civets. The Blanford, Cuvier, Kelaart, and Pocock specimens indeed lack overlaps with the Pallas descriptions of Asian and golden palm civets.

 

Knuckles Mountain Range, the cloud-garlanded site of Channa Rajapaksa's live-trapping of civets, exhibits all of the island's climatic zones within its area.

Central Province, Sri Lanka
Central Province, Sri Lanka

 

Challenges to the Pallas classification and support for Sri Lanka-exclusive civets come from:

  • The field work of Commercial Bank professional Channa Rajapaksha;
  • The scientific expertise of Australian National University Professor Colin P. Groves and Wildlife Heritage Trust professional Kelum Manemandra-Arachchi.

The camera- and live-trapped Rajapaksha specimens give Colombo’s national gardens, museum, and university current samples to be analyzed and living animals to be observed. The joint publication detailing the trio’s data collection and taxonomic conclusions leads amateurs and professionals from the disappointments over mistaken identities to the excitement of phenomenal discoveries. The three authors indeed offer thrilling possibilities that Sri Lanka gains three or more endemic species at the same time that the pearl-shaped isle loses one.

 

 

The Groves, Manemandra-Arachchi, Rajapaksha article tentatively advances:

  • Demoting the Pallas specimen to a possible Sri Lankan morph of Asian palm civets;
  • Subjecting to further investigation the Pallas taxonomy Paradoxurus zeylonensis.

It argues for recognition of three distinct species differentiated by bio-geography and biology. It confers separate species status upon:

  • The Cuvier specimen as the golden wet-zone palm civet, P. aureus (“golden paradox”), with broad zygomatic (cheekbone) arches;
  • The Kelaart specimen as the Sri Lankan brown palm civet, P. montanus (“montane paradox”), with a yellow-white tail tip.

It considers the creation of the new species P. stenocephalus (“narrow-headed paradox”) for endemic golden dry-zone palm civets whose hallmarks include:

  • Narrow zygomatic arches;
  • Triple striping from rump to tail base.

Golden Wet-Zone Palm Civet (Paradoxurus aureus)

illustration by Joseph Smit (July 18, 1836 – November 4, 1929)
W.T. Blanford, "A Monograph of the Genus Paradoxurus, F. Cuv." (1885), Plate L, between pp. 780 - 781
W.T. Blanford, "A Monograph of the Genus Paradoxurus, F. Cuv." (1885), Plate L, between pp. 780 - 781

Conclusion

 

Scientists in the twenty-first century attribute major significance to wildlife diversity and sustainability. Diversity can involve endemic, native, and naturalized species. Sustainability depends as much upon showcasing different organisms as surviving environmental stresses. It generally faces its biggest challenges on islands since agro-industrialism and suburbanization impact smaller total areas over shorter time periods. It typically finds the greatest contradictions between the peril to national wildlife and the pull of world markets in the modernist versus traditionalist interactions along urban – wildland interfaces. Awareness of a rare endemic existing only in the mind therefore gives cause for sorrow. But the concomitant realization of rare endemics existing in real-time on Sri Lanka is joyful cause for:

  • Activism;
  • Funding;
  • Protection;
  • Research.

 

Paradoxurus zeylonensis: a real species?

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, southern Sri Lanka
Sinharaja Forest Reserve, southern Sri Lanka

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the Internet;
  • Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for superior on-campus and on-line resources.

 

Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island in the Indian Ocean

view from payload bay during orbit of earth
view from payload bay during orbit of earth

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"උගුඩුවා | Palm Civet: A Palm Civet creeping on to the neighbor's roof, together with the nightfall."

Battaramulla, suburb of Colombo, Western Province, southwestern Sri Lanka
Battaramulla, suburb of Colombo, Western Province, southwestern Sri Lanka
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

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National Museum, Colombo, Sri Lanka ~ Channa Rajapaksha examined civet skins at the National Museum as part of his fieldwork during his gathering of live specimens of endemic Sri Lankan civets.

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Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

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DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 09/25/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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