A bintur-what? A bintur-right? No, a binturong. Most people have never heard of a binturong let alone seen one in person, which is a good reason zoos everywhere are celebrating the very first World Binturong Day on May 9, 2015.
Binturongs are mammals about the size of a medium-size dog. They are native to the forests of China, India, Indonesia and Southeast Asian forests, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Borneo. Something really unusual about them is their scent—they smell like hot buttered popcorn! But more about that later…
Binturongs have delighted guests at the San Diego Zoo for many years. Currently we have three in our collection and they are all animal ambassadors. Phuket (Foo-KET), a young three-and-a-half-year-old male binturong, lives in the Children’s Zoo. Called “Phu”, by his keepers and trainers, he always delights kids during school programs and impresses Zoo visitors with his playful antics during his walks around the Children’s Zoo. Another young male, three-and-a-half-year-old Khi, (Kee), lives in Urban Jungle. He loves early morning walks through his “neighborhood.” The elder of the Zoo’s binturongs, 14-year-old Bap Rang (“Bop Rong) meets hundreds of guest each month as a regular star of our Backstage Pass experience.
Binturongs are in the Viverridae family. Some of their relatives include civets and genets, even though they don’t look anything like them. Many people think binturongs look like a cross between a bear and cat, which is why they are sometimes called “bear cats.”
Taxonomists have grouped binturongs, civets, and genets together because they have something in common: the perineal gland (located under the tail). This unique gland secretes a thick substance that smells just like hot buttered popcorn—although some people think it smells like over-cooked rice. And here’s where that special scent comes in: the secretion, called civetone or musk, carries hormonal information that allows the male binturongs to find the females in their dense jungle habitat. A binturong’s home range can be hundreds of acres in size, which would make it hard to find one another if it weren’t for civetone. By rubbing the perineal gland against branches and tree trunks, female binturongs leave scent marks in the treetops throughout their territory.
A female binturong’s estrus cycle lasts 80 days. During this time, she is looking for Mr. Bintur-right—and he is very busy looking for her! The estrus cycle is the only time a male binturong is welcome into a female’s foraging area without a fight.
An adaption that allows binturongs to live comfortably up in trees is their prehensile tail. Binturongs and kinkajous (from South America) are the only two carnivores with a prehensile tail. A binturong’s tail is strong enough to support the animal’s body as it hangs from a branch—when it needs to dangle to reach ripened fruit or bird eggs. Binturongs are considered carnivores, yet their diet looks more like that of an omnivore because they eat things other than meat. They will dine on just about anything that doesn’t eat them first, including small birds, small reptiles, amphibians, carrion, and seasonally ripened fruits.
A binturong’s gastrointestinal tract doesn’t completely digest meals—food travels quickly through their system. But that short time is just long enough for the outer layer of a seed to break down, allowing it to germinate quickly when expelled. A binturong’s scat or waste helps more plants to grow!
Now that you know more about binturongs, we hope you’ll celebrate the very first World Binturong Day by helping us preserve their future. All nine subspecies of binturong are listed as “vulnerable with decreasing populations.” Today, the biggest threat to binturongs (and so many other animals) is loss of habitat for the creation of new palm oil plantations.
Palm oil is the number one ingredient in over half of the products in the average American household today. It’s in just about everything you can imagine: crackers, lipstick, detergent, margarine, shampoo, chocolate, and more! Living without palm oil is not a viable option, but buying products made with a sustainable source of palm oil is. Certified sustainable palm oil and certified sustainable palm kernel oil are produced on plantations that comply with globally agreed upon environmental standards.
There are more than 80 different names for palm oil. This fact alone makes it very difficult for consumers to decipher ingredients on labels. But two free apps—available for all types of smart phones—will help you find and purchase products from companies that use sustainable sources of palm oil.
To find these free apps, search “palm oil” in your app store. Once you learn which products are binturong-friendly, it will make shopping easier and you will not only help the binturong but all the other animals—like orangutans and clouded leopards—that share the same habitat. Happy World Binturong Day!
Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Clouded Leopard Success.