Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
Body length: 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 centimeters)
Tail length: 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 centimeters)
Weight: 30 to 60 pounds (13 to 27 kilograms)
Life span: up to 20 years in the wild, 20 or more years in zoos
Gestation: 84 to 92 days
Number of young at birth: usually 1 or 2 (up to 6)
Weight at birth: 5 ounces (142 grams)
Age of maturity: nearly 3 years
Conservation status: lower risk
The binturong is the only Old World mammal and one of only two carnivores (the other is the kinkajou) with a prehensile tail.
• The real meaning of the word binturong is lost now, as the local language that used it is extinct.
• Binturongs are also known as Asian bear cats and Malay civet cats.
It’s a what?
It’s a binturong! Looking like something Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up, a binturong has a face like a cat's and a body like a bear's, long, shaggy black hair, stiff white whiskers, and a prehensile tail that is as long as its body. Binturongs, also called bear cats, are classed as carnivores but eat mostly fruit. They are related to civets and fossas but look more like gigantic dust mops and smell like a freshly made batch of popcorn! Their long ear tufts and reddish brown eyes give them an endearing appearance but it's one that isn’t seen very often in the wild by humans.
So what is it not related to?
Binturongs are primarily nocturnal and move slowly through their homes in the trees to look for fruit. Because of this, they have often been confused with sloths. Like sloths, binturongs have long, shaggy coats that keep their skin dry. But sloths are leaf eaters, while binturongs have been known to eat carrion, small invertebrates, fish, birds, eggs, leaves, and plant shoots. At the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park we feed the binturongs dog food, leaf-eater biscuits, ground meat, carrots, yams, tomatoes, apples, bananas, and grapes (their favorite!). These bear cats sleep during the day high in the forest canopy and love to bask in the sun.
Binturongs walk flat-footed, like a bear or a human, and when walking on the ground they tend to amble much like a bear does. Unlike a bear or human, though, binturongs can turn their ankles backward so that their claws can still grip when climbing down a tree headfirst. Their prehensile tails are used like an extra hand when climbing around in the treetops. The tails are muscular at the base with a leathery patch at the tip to help grip the branches they climb through. Bear cat youngsters have been seen hanging upside down while completely supported by their tails, but adults are a bit too heavy to do this without using a paw or two for an extra grip.
What’s that I smell?
Most animals have some sort of odor, and many use scent for communicating with others of their kind. Some, like skunks, use scent to keep predators away. Binturongs have a very distinctive smell—that of buttered popcorn! As pleasing as it might be to a human nose, that scent serves one purpose in the wild: to let other binturongs know they are trespassing on someone else’s territory. This can be a good thing if you’re looking for a mate, or a not-so-good thing if you’re the trespasser. The scent is made by an oil gland under the tail; as a binturong drags its tail through the branches it climbs on, it leaves its scent behind.
What’s that you say?
Binturongs also make lots of noises to communicate. A binturong can make chuckling sounds when it’s happy and will utter a high-pitched wail if bothered. They also make loud howls, low grunts, and hisses. Bandar, a binturong resident at the San Diego Zoo's Children’s Zoo, makes a funny snort when he’s found something interesting on one of his walks!
The business of reproduction
Experts believe the female binturong is one of only a few mammals that can experience delayed implantation, which allows the female to time the birth of her young with good environmental conditions. This means that mating can take place anytime of the year because the female can control when her babies will be born.
Females are about 20 percent bigger and heavier than the males and are the dominant sex in this species. A male will sometimes stay with the female after mating, even after she has given birth. Baby binturongs are born with eyes sealed and remain hidden in the mother's thick fur for their first few days. They begin to eat solid food at six to eight weeks. Binturongs usually live by themselves or in small family groups consisting of a female and her immature offspring.
Binturongs have an important job in the forests where they are found. Through their fecal "deposits" (poop) they help spread seeds from the fruits they eat, helping to replant the rain forest. They also help with pest control, since they will catch and eat rodents.
Not so common anymore
Binturongs are listed as vulnerable in some parts of their range and endangered in others. Nowhere in the wild are they common, though, and they are currently at risk due to habitat destruction and poaching for the traditional medicine and fur trades. They are also considered to be a delicacy in some areas and are hunted for food. We hope you'll look for our binturongs on your next visit to the San Diego Zoo or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park to see for yourself what wonderful creatures they are!