Otter Civets (Cynogale bennettii): Non-Ringtails of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand

by DerdriuMarriner

Civets distinguish themselves in climbing events. Otters excel at swimming. Otter civets navigate trees like civets and water like otters.

Wildlife-lovers generally associate civets with:
• Cat-like spotted bodies;
• Fox-like tapered muzzles;
• Mongoose-like short limbs;
• Musky body odor;
• Raccoon-like ringed tails;
• Squirrel-like flexible ankles.

But some of Africa's and Asia's civet species do not have bands, rings, spots, or stripes.
• For example, otter civets in fact exhibit the dark brown top-side, the light brown under-side, and the more substantial physique of otters.

They handle climbing up, through, and down trees like other civets.
• But like otters, they have webbing on all four paws.
• Also just like otters, they live near streams and swamps.

They pursue otter-like diets when they catch:
• Crustaceans;
• Mollusks;
• Small fish.

But they remain true to civet-like regimes when they consume:
• Birds;
• Fruits;
• Small mammals.

Otter civets' landscape: Gunung Mulu National Park, near Miri, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, features peat swamp forests and limestone karst formations with vast cave networks.

view of Mount Mulu, sandstone mountain rising to 7,795 feet (2,376 meters).
view of Mount Mulu, sandstone mountain rising to 7,795 feet (2,376 meters).

 

Scientists generally associate otter civets with:

  • Fish-dominated water bodies;

  • Flood-tolerant ground cover;

  • High atmospheric humidity;

  • Moist lowland soils;

  • Predictable year-round rainfall.

But moist air, nutrient-rich soils, and regular precipitation can be found other than in oxygenated, running streams. They also combine in a lowland swamp's moisture-laden air, standing waters, and surrounding vegetation. Streams and swamps indeed emerge as the otter civet's dual habitats. The specific niches include:

  • Lowland primary forests;

  • Peat swamp forests.

In the context of environmental stress from agro-industrial development and residential expansion, they may expand to involve:

  • Dry lowland forests;

  • Secondary-growth forests.

Otter civets also occupy reluctant niches near acacia and oil palm plantation-converted lands.  

 

 

Peninsular Malaysia accommodates the otter civet's bio-geographical needs. But otter civets are not alone in ranging natively over mainland Malaysia. The Malay Peninsula also falls within the homelands of :

  • Asian palm civets (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus);

  • Banded palm civets (Hemigalus derbyanus);

  • Gem-faced masked palm civets (Paguma larvata);

  • Lesser Oriental rasse civets (Viverricula indica);

  • Oriental civets (Viverra megaspilaV. tangalunga, and V. zibetha);

  • Small-toothed three-striped civets (Arctogalidia trivirgata).

But it is not the only homeland for otter civets. Camera-trapping, niche-modeling, and radio-telemetry leave no doubt in the twenty-first century as to the otter civet's distribution and range additionally extending into:

  • Peninsular Thailand;

  • Sabah and Sarawak Provinces, Malaysian Borneo;

  • Sumatra, Indonesia.   

 

Otter Civets' landscape: peat swamp forest near Miri, northern Sarawak state, northwestern Borneo, Malaysia

fanged pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata), Gunung Mulu National Park
fanged pitcher plant (Nepenthes bicalcarata), Gunung Mulu National Park

 

Thailand also accepts among the peninsula's native wildlife:

  • Banded palm civets (Hemigalus derbyanus);

  • Oriental civets (Viverra tangalunga).

The South China Sea island of Borneo likewise acknowledges as native fauna:

  • Asian palm civets (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus);

  • Banded palm civets;

  • Masked palm civets (Paguma larvata);

  • Oriental civets;

  • Small-toothed three-striped civets (Arctogalidia trivirgata).

It additionally acts as the sole homeland of Hose's palm civets (Diplogale hosei). The bio-geographies of the above-mentioned completely or partly sympatric (“same-ranging”) civets do not challenge identification in the wild. The other civets indeed favor more elevated and forested habitats. But in captivity and with domestication, it is possible to confuse Hose's palm civets with otter civets and vice versa.

 

otter civet (cynogale bennettii)

Natural History Museum of Genoa (Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova), Genoa, Liguria region, northern Italy
Natural History Museum of Genoa (Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova), Genoa, Liguria region, northern Italy

 

Fleeting views by inexperienced observers challenge differentiating between Hose's palm civets and otter civets. But Hose's palm civets claim longer tails and whitish under-parts. Otter civets display:

  • Broad mouths, with deep, expansive upper lips;

  • Close, soft under-fur shading from buff bases to black-brown tips;

  • Coarse, grayish, long guard-hairs frosting and speckling bodies and heads;

  • Glandular trio of scent-emitting skin pores;

  • Horizontal nose, with upward-opening nostrils coverable by flaps and located atop the muzzle;

  • Long, plentiful whiskers around snouts and temples;

  • 12 canines, 4 incisors, 16 premolars, and 8 molars;

  • Tan, unspeckled under-sides;

  • Webbed paws, with flexible digits, hairless soles, and long claws;

  • Wide-spaced ears coverable by flaps.   

 

closeup of otter civet's snout and temple whiskers, 1/3 life size

Paul Gervais, Histoire naturelle des mammifères II (1855), p. 30
Paul Gervais, Histoire naturelle des mammifères II (1855), p. 30

 

Mammalogists know that:

  • Litters average 2 – 3 offspring;

  • Kittens emerge unspeckled grey, with striped throats;

  • Lifespans reach 5 years in captivity.

Physical and sexual maturity reveals:

  • Head-and-body lengths of 22.64 – 26.58 inches (575 – 675 millimeters);

  • Tail lengths of 5.12 – 8.07 inches (130 – 205 millimeters);

  • Weights of 6.61 – 11.02 pounds (3 – 5 kilograms).

It showcases:

  • Biting, clawing, and stink-bombing predatory mammals, raptors, and reptiles;

  • Climbing fruit trees;

  • Grasping birds, crabs, fish, mussels, small mammals, and snails with long, sharp premolars and squishing with broad, flat molars;

  • Swimming with only nose-tips visible;

  • Walking with back arched and head and tail lowered.   

 

John Edward Gray (February 12, 1800 - March 7, 1875), Keeper of Zoology at British Museum for over 3 decades (1840 - Christmas 1874) and diligent zoologist credited with 1st official otter civet-related description

John Edward Gray
John Edward Gray

 

Mystery still enshrouds otter civet life cycles and natural histories. The first official otter civet-related description goes back to 1837. It has as author Walsall-born West Midlander John Edward Gray (February 12, 1800 – March 7, 1875), as:

  • London medical student;

  • Spouse of Greenwich Hospital-born English algologist and conchologist Maria Emma Gray (1787 - December 9, 1876);

  • Writer of 500 scientific publications;

  • Zoologist at London's British Museum.

The genus name, Cynogale, identifies the otter civet's dog- and weasel-like features. The species name, bennettii, memorializes George Bennett (January 31, 1804 – September 29, 1893), as:

  • Plymouth-born English and Australian naturalist and physician;

  • Publisher of Wanderings in New South Wales, Batavia, Pedir Coast, Singapore and China.  

 

Otter Civet ('Cynogale Bennettii' Grey). From an album of 51 drawings of birds and mammals made at Bencoolen, Sumatra, for Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (July 6, 1781 – July 5, 1826).

c. 1824 watercolor by J. Briois
otter civet watercolor: collection of British Library
otter civet watercolor: collection of British Library

Conclusion: An unexpected civet with otter-like traits is credited with low-detection frequencies, either due to supreme rarity as a species or to successful evasion strategies.

 

Exploiting lands and harvesting wildlife are common activities throughout Southeast Asia. Developers concentrate upon clear-cutting land for:

  • Commercial logging;

  • Industrial expansion;

  • Metal mining;

  • Plantation agriculture;

  • Residential construction.

They convert peat swamps into oil palm plantations and lowland forests into mono-cultural acacia nurseries. In essence, they herd otter civets into fragmented wildland – urban interfaces:

  • Defined by world markets;

  • Snare-trapped by hunters of bushmeat, musk, and pelts;

  • Warmed by global climate change.

The result is environmentally stressful to area wildlife and local cultures even though modernizers and traditionalists need not always clash. Protected areas, scientific research, and environmental activism still may save the fewer than 2,500 surviving adult otter civets.

 

Ecosystem transformation visible from space: massive destruction of peat swamp forests, otter civets' preferred habitats, via slash-and-burn practices.

Thick smoke in Borneo resulting from slash-and-burn practices. The red squares on the image denote fires, picked up by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the Terra satellite.
Satellite image of the island of Borneo on August 19, 2002, showing smoke from burning peat swamp forests.
Satellite image of the island of Borneo on August 19, 2002, showing smoke from burning peat swamp forests.

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.

 

Otter Civet - Cynogale bennettii - ConCaSa (Conservation of Carnivores in Sabah) ~ Deramakot Forest Reserve, Sabah, Borneo ~ Per Andreas Wilting, ConCaSa leader, ". . . as far as I know this is the first video ever taken of this species."

Uploaded to YouTube on May 24, 2009, by 79anwil ~ URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIngMRzZn3U

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closeup of otter civet (Cynogale bennettii)

Natural History Museum of Genoa (Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova), Genoa, Liguria region, northern Italy
Natural History Museum of Genoa (Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Genova), Genoa, Liguria region, northern Italy
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Updated: 08/20/2014, DerdriuMarriner
 
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