Malabar Large-Spotted Civets (Viverra civettina): Ringtails of the Western Ghats in India

by DerdriuMarriner

Malabar large-spotted civets favor southwest India’s coastal lowland and mountain forests. Big spots mark their bodies. Traditional physicians use their aromatic, medicinal musk.

Among southwest India's striking landforms are the Malabar Coast and the Western Ghats.
• The mountain range particularly attracts worldwide attention through the primary-growth vegetation and unique animals prevailing throughout every 100 square kilometers of slope.

The Malabar Coast contrastingly belongs on the list of India's more developed coastal areas because of accessibility, landforms, and weather.
• Coastal wildlife therefore confronts even greater environmental stress than montane fauna and flora.

The animals and plants that are endemic (native exclusively) to the Malabar Coast and the Western Ghats possibly do not include Malabar large-spotted civets any longer.
• Late twentieth and early twenty-first century interviews and surveys find no evidence of surviving Malabar large-spotted civets … anywhere … in southwest India.

Malabar Large-Spotted Civet floral synecology: teak (Tectona grandis) plantation near Nilambur, Kerala state, southwestern India

Conolly Plot: about 3 miles (5 km) southwest of Nilambur
Conolly Plot: about 3 miles (5 km) southwest of Nilambur

 

Coastal southwest India historically accords with the bio-geographical needs of Malabar large-spotted civets. The correlation between biology and geography can be accommodating or exacting. Altitude, humidity, landforms, rainfall, temperature, and wildlife emerge as significant determinants. They find humid, lush, warm expressions in the southwestern moist deciduous forests of the Western Ghats (“steps”) and the tropical moist broadleaf forests of the Malabar (“mountain-land”) Coast. Both eco-regions historically provide Malabar large-spotted civets with niches:

  • Among lowland stands of chengal (Neobalanocarpus heimii), durian (Cullenia excelsa), meranti (Shorea acuminata), and teak (Tectona grandis);

  • At coastal elevations up to 820.21 feet (250 meters) above sea level;

  • Between montane heights of 820.21 – 3,280.84 feet (250 – 1,000 meters) above sea level.  

 

Malabar Large-spotted Civet (Viverra civettina) range

Distribution data from IUCN Red List
Distribution data from IUCN Red List

 

Sylvan habitats allow clever camouflage to operate optimally. Malabar large-spotted civets indeed appear, black, grey, and white, in line with:

  • Exposed soil;

  • Filtered light;

  • Forest shadows;

  • Lingering rainfall;

  • Monsoon clouds;

  • Tree bark.

Black darkens:

  • The body, with big blotches randomly spotting the flanks and limbs, long mane bristling mid-dorsally from neck to tail tip, and night-nimble paws;

  • The head, with moist nose, night-vision eyes, splotched cheeks, and two alternating neck bands obliquely transversing the throat;

  • The tail, with alternating rings and 2-inch (5.08-centimeter) tip.

Grey grizzles as the head-and-body ground color. Whitel ightens:

  • The tail, with 5 alternating light rings;

  • The throat, with 2 alternating stripes obliquely brightening, encircling, and transversing the neck.

  • The colors obfuscate identification.   

 

Large-Spotted Civet (Viverra megaspila): Some scientists have considered Malabar Large-Spotted Civets as a subspecies of V. megaspila rather than a species in their own right ~

illustration by Johannes Gerardus Keulemans (June 8, 1842 – March 29, 1912)
Dr. A. Günther, "Remarks on some Indian and, more especially, Bornean Mammals" (1876), Plate XXXVII, between pp. 424-425
Dr. A. Günther, "Remarks on some Indian and, more especially, Bornean Mammals" (1876), Plate XXXVII, between pp. 424-425

 

Body shapes and elusive behaviors afford substantial reinforcement to camouflage-smart corporeal coloring. Malabar large-spotted civets belong to the viverrid (binturong, civet, linsang, oyan family) genus Viverra. The Latin term can be translated as “ferret.” But all of the genus's members communicate dog-like impressions with:

  • Elongated heads;
  • Errant legs;
  • Extended muzzles.

 

Malabar Large-Spotted Civet, under synonym of Moschothera civettina: specimen from Trivandrum, Kerala state, southern tip of India ~

A = palate of skull; B = frontal area of skull
R.I. Pocock, The Fauna of British India, Vol. I (1939), Figure 88, p. 361
R.I. Pocock, The Fauna of British India, Vol. I (1939), Figure 88, p. 361

 

Overall canine looks convey fleet elusiveness. Escape, evasion, survival, and sustainability indeed depend upon internal compasses activated by dog-like:

  • Acute hearing;

  • Fast paws;

  • Hairless soles; 

  • Long limbs;

  • Motion-detector vision;

  • Quick reflexes;

  • Sensitive smell;

  • Sharp claws, as 20 curved nails;

  • Strong teeth, as 12 incisors, 4 canines, 16 premolars, 8 molars;

  • Super-sensory whiskers.

They additionally involve:

  • Balance- ballast-, direction-regulating tails;

  • Scent glands for marking territory and stink-bombing predators.   

 

Malabar Civet, under synonym of Moschothera civettina (R.I. Pocock, The Fauna of British India, Vol. I):

B = left hind paw
Figure 87, p. 355
Figure 87, p. 355

Malabar Civet, under synonym of Moschothera civettina (R.I. Pocock, The Fauna of British India, Vol. 1):

A = left fore paw
Figure 87, p. 355
Figure 87, p. 355

 

The life cycles and natural histories of Malabar large-spotted civets challenge scientists. Problems consistently emerge historically regarding sparse information from such first-hand sources as:

  • Agro-industrialists;

  • Butchers; 

  • Hunters;

  • Perfumists;

  • Physicians;

  • Traders;

  • Villagers.

All seven informants have vested interests in refining information-gathering about the Malabar large-spotted civet's bio-geography. They respectively link one of the subcontinent's most elusive, enigmatic animals with:

  • Annoyances;

  • Bushmeat;

  • Exotic pets;

  • Fragrant civetone (cyclic ketone pheromone sourced by disfiguring, painful gland-scarping or through slaughter);

  • Medicinal civetone;

  • Ritual-related attire;

  • Trophy specimens.

With its modernist and traditionalist interactions at urban and wildland interfaces, the twentieth century ironically looms as the time during which the Malabar large-spotted civet's distribution and range get sorted and then go missing again.  

 

Malabar Large-Spotted Civets' pelts: valued as ritual-related attire and as trophies

Malabar Large-Spotted Civet skin
Malabar Large-Spotted Civet skin

 

The last quarter of the twentieth century ends 100+ speculative years regarding Malabar large-spotted civet biology. Its agro-industrial and residential expansionism finds Malabar large-spotted civets flushed from deforested lowlands into cashew plantations. Scientists guesstimate that unweeded thickets sustain fewer than 250 relic civets. But elusiveness, not extinction or near-extinction, informs the Malabar large-spotted civet's formal presentation in 1862 to amateurs and professionals outside India by Edward Blyth (December 23, 1810 – December 27, 1873), as:

  • London-born chemistry matriculant, pharmacist, and teacher;

  • “Mammalia, Birds, and Reptiles” writer for the English-language edition, Animal Kingdom, of Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier's (August 23, 1769 – May 13, 1832) Le Règne animal;

  • Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal museum curator.   

 

Edward Blyth:

Woodburytype portrait published in 1890
Allan O. Hume, The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (1890), frontispiece, opp. p. 1
Allan O. Hume, The Nests and Eggs of Indian Birds (1890), frontispiece, opp. p. 1

 

Mammalogists assume terrestrial life cycles and natural histories for super-elusive Malabar large-spotted civets. They attribute super-reluctance by Malabar large-spotted civets to climb or frequent trees. This non-arborealism contradicts the tree-dwelling inclinations of other civet species. It exposes Malabar large-spotted civets to:

  • Agro-industrial machinery;
  • Bounty-hunting and snare-trapping;
  • Predatory mammals, raptors, and reptiles.

A ground-dwelling biology indeed gives no protection to yearly litters of 1 – 4 fur-covered, open-eyed offspring whose survival is compromised by cashew plantation make-overs into thicket-less, understory-free, weeded rubber tree plantings. It is untenable when assiduous foraging produces edible poultry and inedible crops and yields none of the homeless, starving Malabar large-spotted civet’s traditional fare of:

  • Amphibians;
  • Bird eggs;
  • Fish;
  • Fruits;
  • Insects;
  • Small mammals and reptiles.

 

Malabar Large-Spotted Civet, under synonym of Moschothera civettina

R.I. Pocock, The Fauna of British India, Vol. I (1939), Plate XXVII, between pp. 360 - 361
R.I. Pocock, The Fauna of British India, Vol. I (1939), Plate XXVII, between pp. 360 - 361

Conclusion: Is the Malabar Large-Spotted Civet extinct or hidden in safe habitats?

 

Scientists expect obligate pest-controlling, seed-dispersing Malabar large-spotted civets to mature physically to:

  • Head-and-body lengths of 29.92 – 33.47 inches (76 – 85 centimeters);
  • Tail lengths of 12.99 – 15.75 inches (33 – 40 centimeters);
  • Weights of 17.64 – 19.84 pounds (8 – 9 kilograms).

But life expectancies need:

  • Evergreen/semi-evergreen rainforests;
  • Lowland, riparian, or scrub forests;
  • Lowland swamps;
  • 118.11 – 157.48-inch (3,000 – 4,000-millimeter) rainfall yearly;
  • Shallow waterways;
  • 68+°F (20+°C) temperatures;
  • Wooded coastal plains and hill slopes.

Per sightings and specimens into the 1990s, life-supporting configurations obtain in:

  • Karnataka (Honnavar, Kodagu, Kudremukh);
  • Kerala (Elayur, Kozhikode’s environs, Nilambur, Thiruvananthapuram, Tiruvalla, Wayanad);
  • Tamil Nadu (Kanyakumari).

But Wildlife Trust of India’s 12-month, 2006-conducted camera-/fecal-trapping, night-transecting surveys suggest International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ 1978-issued prediction: extinction.

 

Malabar Large-Spotted Civet floral synecology: Cashew plantations, which are not weeded, provide dense, protective understory, but large-scale clearance of cashews for rubber tree plantations threatens this critical habitat favored by Malabar civets ~

Cashew (Anacardium occidentale) fruits, known as apples, contain seeds, which are known as nuts!
seaport town of Kollam, Laccadive Sea Coast, Kerala state, southwestern corner of India
seaport town of Kollam, Laccadive Sea Coast, Kerala state, southwestern corner of India

Acknowledgment

 

My special thanks to:

  • Talented photographers and 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.

 

Faunal, floral, and human synecology: before mid-20th century, Malabar Large-Spotted Civets proliferated at India's southwestern tip in the Kingdom of Travancore.

Kowdiar Palace, residence of the Maharajah of Travancore, Trivandrum
Kowdiar Palace, residence of the Maharajah of Travancore, Trivandrum

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Of the only two sightings of Malabar Large-Spotted Civet in the decades from 1950 to 1990, one was in Karnataka state's Kudremukh mountain range ~

The great water retentive capacity of Kudremukh's shola grasslands combines with the area's wet climate to provide a lush faunal and floral environment.
The Shola Grasslands and Forests in the Kudremukh National Park, Western Ghats, southwestern Karnataka, South West India
The Shola Grasslands and Forests in the Kudremukh National Park, Western Ghats, southwestern Karnataka, South West India
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

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Photo Jigsaw Puzzle of Monsoon rain, Kerala, India: photo by Balan Madhavan

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Updated: 09/30/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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DerdriuMarriner on 09/30/2014

VioletteRose, You must have many lovely memories of your childhood in Kerala. You are fortunate that your parents had a cashew tree -- it's one of my favorite trees.

VioletteRose on 09/30/2014

That is where I grew up - Kerala. So happy to see the pictures. I have never travelled to Malabar and didn't know about the large spotted civets. I agree with what you have said, actually most of the crops are replaced by rubber tree plantations in recent years. We had a cashew tree in my parents' home and I loved those fruits and nuts. Great information!

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