Though it looks half bear and half cat, the binturong is a unique species of its own, as there is no other animal quite like it! This animal can be found in tropical rainforests throughout Eastern India and Indonesia. Read on to learn more about this charming animal!
It's Neither Bear nor Cat
The binturong is, after all, a strange creature that looks like a combination between a bear and a cat. With its shaggy fur, long tail, and prominent whiskers, this animal seems to sport traits of both groups. However, it is neither of them! The binturong belongs to a family of carnivorans known as the viverrids. The family, Viverridae, comprises genets and civets. In other terms, this animal is a large, tree-climbing civet; in fact, it is the largest viverrid living today.
Recently, the binturong served as an ambassador for the Cincinnati Bearcats. A binturong living at the Cincinnati Zoo even served as the university’s mascot. This creature, named Lucy, held this mascot title from 2008 until 2019, when the animal retired due to old age.
2. It Smells Like Buttered Popcorn
The binturong is notable for its characteristically iconic scent. Strangely, this creature’s urine smells like buttered popcorn, though some people may compare it more to overcooked rice instead. This unique smell is due to the presence of the chemical 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline. This chemical is produced not from scent glands as formerly believed, but from bacteria that are exposed to its urine. As it urinates, it gets all over the binturong's fur, which it then uses to mark its territory by dragging its tail through various surfaces it walks on. The binturong also produces a musk from their scent glands to mark their territories.
While binturongs use scent to communicate, this animal also produces a variety of sounds, from howling to wailing. They'll produce a huffing noise when happy or content but will scream and hiss similarly to a cat when aggravated.
3. Binturongs Eat Mostly Fruit
The binturong is an omnivorous animal, though its overall diet consists mainly of fruit, particularly figs. This creature will also eat vegetable matter, eggs, and small animals. They play important roles in their environments as seed dispersers, especially for certain species of strangler figs. One strangler fig species, Ficus altissima, is believed to be solely dispersed by the binturong. Binturongs have unique enzymes in their gut that help digest the coating around this fig’s seeds. Because of this, the binturong is a fundamentally important animal in its ecosystem, and some could argue it is a keystone species.
4. They’re at Home in the Trees
The binturong is an arboreal animal that lives mostly in the tree canopy. It sports a long, prehensile tail that sometimes acts as a fifth limb when climbing from branch to branch. Along with the kinkajou, the binturong is the only other carnivoran (note: not carnivore, but carnivoran as in members of the order Carnivora) that sports a prehensile tail. Their claws are also very sharp, helping this animal maintain a tight, secure grip on wooden bark.
However, despite these adaptations, binturongs aren't the most agile or nimble tree-climbing animals out there. In many cases, they'll climb down to the ground just to travel to the next tree. The binturong's ankles can rotate around 180 degrees, allowing this animal to turn and climb down headfirst while also maintaining a secure grip on the tree's surface, similar in fashion to that of a squirrel.
Binturongs are mainly nocturnal animals, active at night. During the day, this species will sleep in the trees, using its tail to grasp onto a branch it is sleeping on.
5. Binturongs Need Our Help
As of 2016, the binturong is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List. Unfortunately, its overall wild population is decreasing as various threats continue to put this species in peril. Habitat destruction is the most prominent threat to wild binturongs, as rainforests are being destroyed to make room for agricultural and residential use. Palm oil plantations and logging operations threaten the binturong’s continued survival.
The binturong is also poached for its meat and fur. In some parts of its range, their body parts are used for traditional medicines (that do not work). Binturongs are also captured alive to be kept as pets. This animal is also caught accidentally in traps meant for other animals since binturongs sometimes travel on the ground (as mentioned earlier).
You can help the binturong by raising awareness among your friends and family. You can also support conservation organizations that are working to save binturongs and their habitats. Many foods and household products, such as shampoos, use palm oil as an important ingredient. Considering that palm oil can often go under various other names, it can be difficult to avoid altogether. Recently, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has released a mobile app that can be used to scan barcodes of various items to examine whether certain products contain sustainable palm oil. This app, called PalmOil Scan, can be used while you shop for groceries.