Mellivora capensis, the honey badger or ratel, has an expansive geographic range, spanning most of sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Arabian peninsula (including portions of Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates), the Indian peninsula (including most of India as well as portions of Nepal and Pakistan), and parts of the western Asian nations of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Afghanistan. It is not historically found in the incredibly dry areas of the Sahara Desert nor is it found along the coast of the Mediterranean. (Begg, et al., 2008; Gupta, et al., 2012)
Honey badgers are terrestrial animals that inhabit a wide variety of habitats, including tropical and subtropical green forests, thorn forests, open woodlands, riparian forests or grasslands, arid steppes, rocky hills, and deserts. Honey badgers occupy elevations ranging from sea level to 4,050 meters. They typically do not live in the driest portions of the Sahara Desert or in the chaparral biomes around the Mediterranean. They require habitats with burrows, rock crevices, or other places in which they can shelter. (Begg, et al., 2008; Gupta, et al., 2012; Rosevear, 1974; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003)
Honey badgers are large mustelids, with a body length of 60 to 70 cm and a mass ranging from 8 to 12 kg. Their size varies across their geographic range, with measurements taken on honey badgers in Africa showing them to be slightly larger than individuals from Asian populations. This species exhibits sexual dimorphism, with the males being larger than the females. Data from individuals in the Kalahari showed adult males to be about one third larger than adult females. Older adult males also have an obvious scarred area on their back (they are referred to as "scarbacks") that is probably the result of multiple bite wounds. This species is characterized by having a stocky body, about 25 cm high at the shoulder, with a large skull, small eyes, and a muscular neck and shoulders. Though the color varies slightly with subspecies (see Other Comments below), in general the lower (ventral) half of the body is a dark black, with an upper mantle that is either grey or bright white. The lighter coloring extends the entire length of the body, stopping at the base of the tail. The forefeet are strong and wide, with large claws that are useful for grasping prey and running. In contrast, the hind feet are small with short claws. Honey badgers have very thick, loose skin which prevents a predator from getting a firm grasp on them and enables thm to easily twist and bite the attacker. (Begg, et al., 2003a; Rosevear, 1974; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003; Verwey, et al., 2004)
Little data are available for juvenile honey badgers. However, a report of a captive-born honey badger described it as being hairless and weighing 0.23 kg at 2 days of age. By the age of 3 months, the juvenile had a fully developed coat with a color pattern like that of an adult. (Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003)
Reproduction in honey badgers is generally not well studied, except for a 42 month-long study in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park in southern Africa. In this area, honey badgers mate throughout the year, though mating activity is slightly more common during the hot dry season, from September to December. Much of the recent literature on the species describes honey badgers as solitary animals, coming together only briefly for mating. However, some older reports, such as the reference to a 1910 paper by Drake-Brockman in Vanderhaar & Hwang, 2003, indicate that males and females often live in pairs. The scent-marking behavior of honey badgers appears to play an important role in finding a mate. There are typically more males available to mate than there are receptive females, due to the long period of time the offspring are dependent on their mother, 12 to 16 months. This means that adult male honey badgers are competing with each other for access to females. Male honey badgers that are more dominant will typically be heavier and have larger testes. However, this dominance does not guarantee mating success. In fact, a study of the genetic markers possessed by eight males and eight females with overlapping ranges, and the 10 offspring of those females showed that the dominant male fathered only half of the cubs. Since mating occurs in a burrow, very few observations of the process have been made. (Begg, et al., 2003b; Begg, et al., 2005a; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003; Verwey, et al., 2004)
Female honey badgers are in estrous for a minimum of two weeks, when mating occurs. Mating is asynchronous, occurring at any point in the year, but research in southern Africa suggests most breeding occurs from September to December. The gestation period ranges from 50 to 70 days. Litters are reported to consist of one to two offspring, but observations made in southern Africa suggest that honey badgers there raise only a single young at a time. The young are born in a burrow and remain there until they are about 3 months old and are weaned. Consequently, little information is available about the size of newborns; however, one captive-born cub was reported to weigh 0.23 kg at 2 days old. Female honey badgers care for their young until they are one to two years old. Female honey badgers reach sexual maturity significantly faster than males, taking only 12 to 16 months, where males take two to three years. (Begg, et al., 2005a; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003; Verwey, et al., 2004)
Some literature sources report that honey badger reproduction can involve delayed implantation, as occurs with some other mustelid species. The reproductive biology of the species has not been well studied across its geographic range, but data collected in the southern Kalahari does not suggest that delayed implantation occurs in that population. (Begg, et al., 2005a)
Only female honey badgers are involved in the care of offspring, which are born blind and hairless. For the first 3 months, honey badger cubs remain in the den, with the mother returning to nurse. The mother will periodically (average of every 3 days) move her cub to a new den, carrying it with her mouth. When the cub is two to three months old, the mother honey badger will begin to bring prey items back to the den. Once the cub begins to accompany its mother to forage, at around 3 months of age, the pair will move to a different burrow each night. The cub will remain with its mother for 12 to 16 months, with the mother providing all of the food for the first 10 to 12 months. (Begg, et al., 2005b; Begg, et al., 2005a; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003)
Both male and female honey badger cubs become independent at an average age of 14 months. However, females have reached their adult size at this age, and presumably are sexually mature, and they immediately disperse away from their mother's home range. Males, on the other hand, continue to grow after reaching the age of independence, suggesting that they have not yet reached sexual maturity. Male cubs may remain in or near to their mother's home range for a few months after they become independent. (Begg, et al., 2005b; Begg, et al., 2005a)
Honey badgers in the wild tend to live between 7 and 8 years due to predation and risk of injury. In contrast, honey badgers bred in captivity live significantly longer, with a maximum lifespan of 26 years. (Begg, et al., 2005a; Begg, et al., 2008; Rosevear, 1974)
Honey badgers are solitary and nomadic. They occupy a large range, moving around daily to forage. Female honey badgers tend to travel shorter distances per day, around 10 km, while males may forage for as much as 27 km per day. Males have been known to meet up with other adult-sized honey badgers after foraging and exchange grunts while sniffing each other and rolling around in the sand. Honey badgers have been known to defecate in holes and mark with their urine or anal scent glands to indicate to other animals that their burrow is nearby. Honey badgers are notoriously aggressive animals. Males in particular defend mates with incredible ferocity if threatened. Male interactions become aggressive if one of the males attempts to intrude into the marked burrows, they begin a dominance dance to determine who will stay. (Rosevear, 1974; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003)
In the southern Kalahari region, adult male honey badgers have an average home range of 541 sq km, while adult females have a smaller average home range of 126 sq km. Young males (independent but not yet sexually mature) have home ranges averaging 151 sq km. These home ranges are not exclusive, but instead overlap extensively. Adult males may have overlapping home ranges, as do adult females. The home range of a dominant adult male may overlap the ranges of as many as 13 females. Young males may have home ranges that overlap entirely with the home range of an adult male. Despite the overlapping home ranges of young males, adult males, and adult females, they don't exhibit territoriality. (Begg, et al., 2005b)
Honey badgers communicate mainly through vocalizations. Adults emit loud grating noises, comparable to a high-pitched bark. Young squeal and whine when in distress to gather the attention of a parent. When faced with competing males, a male honey badger will begin a ritualized dance consisting of various whole-body rotations. The dominant male will be the one moving the most while the subordinate is mostly immobile. Honey badgers mark their territory with urine or scent glands located in the anus. (Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003)
Honey badgers are opportunistic foragers; the composition of the diet varies with seasonal changes in prey abundance. They have a primarily carnivorous diet, frequently dining on eggs, small rodents, snakes, birds, and frogs. While the majority of the diet is carnivorous, honey badgers also eat fruit, roots, and bulbs. Bee hives are preyed upon because the honey badger also likes to devour the bee larvae and honey inside. They have been known to turn to carrion as a food source if other nourishment is scarce. (Begg, et al., 2008; Rosevear, 1974)
An extensive study of honey badgers in the southern Kalahari found that, despite the size difference between male and female honey badgers, their foraging patterns and foraging success were remarkably comparable. They were observed capturing prey ranging in size from 2 to 2000 g. The types of prey eaten by the honey badgers varied seasonally, with small mammals making up most of the diet (80%) during the season of highest small mammal abundance (September to December). Large snakes made up a significant portion of the diet (58%) during the hot-wet season (January to April). Overall, adult male honey badgers consumed an average of 1.3 kg of food per day while females consumed an average of 0.9 kg per day. (Begg, et al., 2005b)
Honey badgers in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park have been observed consuming the following prey species: springhares (Pedetes capensis), Brant's gerbils (Gerbilliscus brantsii), hairy-footed gerbils (Gerbillurus paeba), African wild cats (Felis lybica), Cape foxes (Vulpes chama), scrub hares (Lepus saxatilis), yellow mongooses (Cynictis penicillata), striped mice (Rhabdomys pumilio), striped polecats (Ictonyx striatus), bat-eared foxes (Otocyon megalotis), suricates (Suricata suricatta>>), Brant's whistling rats (Paratomys brantsii), bushveld elephant shews (Elephantulus intufi), short-tailed gerbils (Desmodillus auricularis), pygmy mice (Mus minutoides), pouched mice (Saccostomus campestris), Woosnam's desert rats (Zelotomys woosnami), mole snakes (Pseudaspis cana), puff adders (Bitis arientans), Cape cobras (Naja nivea), horned adders (Bitis caudalis), common barking geckos (Ptenopus garrulous), sand snakes (Psammophis), giant ground geckos (Chondrodactylus angulifer), Kalahari tree skinks (Trachylepis occidentalis), Bibron's stilettos (Atractaspis bibronii), bicolored quill snouted snakes (Xenocalamus bicolor bicolor), Cape geckos (Chondrodactylus bibronii), African rock pythons (Python natalensis), striped sandveld lizards (Nucras tessellata tessellata), ground agamas (Agama aculeate), black and yellow sand lizards (Heliobolus lugubris), pale chanting goshawks (Melierax canorus), black korhaans (Afrotis afra), Namaqua sandgrouse (Pterocles namaqua), spotted eagle owls (Bubo africanus), ant eating chat (Myrmecocichla formicivora), barn owls (Tyto alba), common quails (Coturnix coturnix), scaly feathered finches (Sporopines squamifrons), social weavers (Philetairus socius), yellow scorpions (Opistophthalmus wahlbergii), termites (Hodotermes mossambicus), beetles (Melolonthinae), yellow scorpions (Parabuthus raudus), black scorpions (Opistophthalmus carinatus), black/brown scorpions (Parabuthus granulatus or Parabuthus kalaharicus), locusts (Orthoptera), and solitary bee larvae (Parafidelia friesei). There were also observations of adult honey badgers cannibalizing honey badger cubs. (Begg, et al., 2003a)
Being a carnivorous species, honey badgers don't have an extensive list of predators. Lions and leopards tend to kill only older and weaker honey badgers, as the thick, loose skin makes younger badgers difficult to grasp. The distinctive coloring of honey badgers, a black body with a white mantle, mimics that of a baby cheetah, making any predators less likely to attack. The enlarged anal glands can also produce a foul-smelling liquid when they are threatened. This is typically accompanied by a threat display where the honey badger's hair stands on end, the tail is held erect, a loud "rattling" sound is made. Honey badgers also frequently charge attackers. (Begg, et al., 2003b; Bright, 2000; Eaton, 1976; Nowak, 1991)
As opportunistic predators, honey badgers prey on a wide variety of other organisms in the ecosystem. Although a supposed symbiotic relationship with greater honeyguides (Indicator indicator) is often described in the literature and popular media (in which the bird guides the honey badger to a beehive and is rewarded by getting to eat the leftovers after the honey badger has eaten its fill), there is no empirical evidence to support the existence of this relationship - it has not been observed to occur in the wild. Older honey badgers that are less capable of defending themselves become prey for large predators such as lions, spotted hyaenas, and leopards. (Begg, et al., 2003b; Rosevear, 1974; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003)
Honey badgers are very efficient at controlling rodent and insect populations, effectively reducing some pest-borne diseases. Apiculturists find them particularly useful, as they act as honey guides to scout out potential locations for bee hives. Their organs, skin, and other parts were seen as a symbol of ferociousness and tenacity, so humans incorporated them into traditional medicine. (Begg, et al., 2008; Bright, 2000; Nowak, 1991)
Honey badgers can be quite fierce if startled by a human, thus making them a danger. They have been known to carry rabies, which poses a health problem for the surrounding humans and wildlife. They account for 26% of the damage done to commercial bee hives by breaking into the hives and eating the larvae, which results in a monetary loss for the beekeepers. Honey badgers have also been known to stray onto farmland and attack livestock. (Begg, et al., 2008; Bright, 2000; Nowak, 1991; Zhang, et al., 2009)
Honey badgers are not common anywhere in their range, although densities vary from one region to another. The overall population shows a decreasing trend, despite the fact that the species is protected in some of the countries that it inhabits. The IUCN Red List identifies the species as "Least Concern" because, although the population is declining, the species has a broad geographic range and is not a dietary specialist. The Botswanan population is included on CITES Appendix III. The largest threat to honey badgers is probably human activity. Individuals are often killed, either intentionally or unintentionally with traps and poison baits by farmers and apiculturists trying to reduce predator population, and others are subject to hunting for traditional medicinal remedies. Honey badgers have large home ranges, so tracking and ensuring conservation for them is exceedingly difficult. (Begg and Begg, 2002; Begg, et al., 2008)
The thick skin of honey badgers is said to be impervious to bee stings and snake fangs. While their skin may offer them some protection from bees, they are certainly not immune to the effects of bee stings as honey badgers have occasionally been caught in apiary traps and have subsequently died as a result of numerous bee stings. Honey badgers are known to eat a variety of venomous snakes, which suggests that they have some adaptations for this diet. Some carnivorous mammals are known to exhibit a resistance to the effects of snake venom, including species of opossum (Didelphidae), hedgehogs (Erinacediae), mongoose (Herpestidae), skunks (Mephitidae>>), and several mustelids (Mustelidae). It is likely that the honey badger also has resistance to snake venom, although the exact physiological mechanism has not been demonstrated in honey badgers. For other venom resistant mammals, the typical mechanisms are either factors in the blood that inactivate the venom toxins, or that the resistant mammal has evolved slight changes in the molecules that the snake venom targets, making those molecules less susceptible to the damaging effects of the venom. (Begg and Begg, 2002; Jansa and Voss, 2011; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003; Voss and Jansa, 2012)
There are currently 12 recognized subspecies of Mellivora capensis, differing in location and the coat coloration: the Cape ratel (M.c. capensis), Ethiopian ratel (M.c. abyssinica), Turkmenian ratel (M.c. buechneri), Lake Chad ratel (M.c. concisa), black ratel (M.c. cottoni), Nepalese ratel (M.c. inaurita), Indian ratel (M.c. indica), white-backed ratel (M.c. leuconota), Kenyan ratel (M.c. maxwelli), Arabian ratel (M.c. pumilio), speckled ratel (M.c. signata), and the Persian ratel (M.c. wilsoni). ("Mellivora capensis (Schreber, 1776)", 2014; Baryshnikov, 2000; Vanderhaar and Hwang, 2003; Wilson and Reeder, 2005)
Zara Hoffman (author), Sierra College, Jennifer Skillen (editor), Sierra College, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.
living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.
uses sound to communicate
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
having coloration that serves a protective function for the animal, usually used to refer to animals with colors that warn predators of their toxicity. For example: animals with bright red or yellow coloration are often toxic or distasteful.
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
an animal that mainly eats meat
flesh of dead animals.
either directly causes, or indirectly transmits, a disease to a domestic animal
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
active at dawn and dusk
in mammals, a condition in which a fertilized egg reaches the uterus but delays its implantation in the uterine lining, sometimes for several months.
in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.
ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates
a substance used for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
parental care is carried out by females
forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
active during the night
the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.
having more than one female as a mate at one time
rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.
Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).
communicates by producing scents from special gland(s) and placing them on a surface whether others can smell or taste them
scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.
remains in the same area
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
Living on the ground.
the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.
A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.
A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.
A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.
uses sight to communicate
reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.
breeding takes place throughout the year
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