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THE WILD GUIDE – The sugar-kick carnivores

Despite a high diversity of small carnivores in Africa, little is known about their ecology and their role as primary and secondary consumers. This is partly due to our general focus on what I like to call the ‘hairies and scaries’ – those large and charismatic animals that possess features such as tusks, horns, or very large teeth! We often overlook the smaller, and often nocturnal, predators which also play a crucial rule in ecosystem functioning.

In this article, I would like to focus on one group of these small carnivores, in particular, the genets. Members of the genus Genetta (Cuvier, 1816), genets are small, spotted carnivores with wide faces and bushy tails belonging to the family Viverridae. Within southern Africa, there are three species: the South African Large-spotted genet (Genetta tigrina) – which occurs south of 32˚S, the Central African Large-spotted genet (Genetta maculata), and the Small-spotted genet (Genetta genetta). There is very little obvious difference between them in the field, so the easiest way to tell them apart is by taking a look at the tip of their tail. This is black in the Large-spotted genet species and white in the Small-spotted genet.

The civets and genets belong to one of the four families of terrestrial cat-like mammals descended from the Viverraines, which were civet/genet-like mammals. These four families [Felidae (cats), Hyaenidae (hyaenas), Herpestidae (mongooses), and Viverridae (civets & genets)] are linked by the presence of an ossified segment in the auditory bulla – a hollow bony section of the inner ear; a feature not found in dog-like carnivorans. They are thought to have evolved more slowly than any other Carnivorans and to show the most primitive skeletal features of the Order Carnivora. For example, they have a longer jaw and a greater number of upper molars than Felids, to whom they are closely related. There are, however, many parallels between the vocal repertoire of genets and cats; both purr, ‘meow’, hiss, and ‘spit’ in similar situations. They also make ‘churring’ and ‘yapping’ noises in stressful situations. In total, they have been shown to utilise seven specific vocalisations in varying circumstances.

All species are adapted to a semi-arboreal lifestyle and, like the Civet (Civetticus civetta), use anal glands for marking their territories. Genets’ anal gland secretion has a musky smell, which maintains its scent for up to nine weeks. Not advisable to mistakenly get on your person, even if you do like Eau de musk parfum! Their role in healthy ecosystem maintenance is an important one, as a considerable part of their diet consists of rodents and other small mammals. During a recent mouse infestation in Zululand, it was amazing to see the skill and dexterity with which genets dispatched them – a far more effective (and dare I say, eco-friendly) measure than any Pest Control service. They also consume large quantities of insects and fruits, the latter making them effective vectors of seed dispersal.

Recent research conducted in the Western Cape by Dr Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen from the University of Cape Town (UCT) focused on monitoring the interaction of mammals with Protea flowers. Her team recorded around 30 species of Protea being pollinated by small, ground-dwelling mammals, such as rodents and elephant shrews, alongside birds. “But the large-spotted genets… were something of a surprise. They accounted for around 7% of all recorded visits to the flowers by mammals and birds… and appeared quite keen on the nectar, visiting flowers repeatedly,” said Steenhuisen.

The large-spotted genets dove right into the blooms, which produce up to 2ml of nectar containing over 30% sugar by weight. Pollen seen on their snouts after they drank supports the theory that they play a larger role in pollinating the plants than previously thought. Genets are mainly meat and arthropod eaters but Steenhuisen thinks they visit flowers for “the sugar kick”. The remaining puzzle is what makes Protea flowers so attractive to all these different mammals – rodents, elephant shrews, genets, mongooses – with diets ranging from seeds to insects and meat. “These unrelated animals have different diets, so it’s a puzzle as to what kind of common attractive signal is being emitted by these plants,” says Steenhuisen. “One possibility may be the fact that the flowers emit a fermented odour similar to that of sour milk or cheese, which would likely be more enticing to carnivores than a sweet, sugary smell.”

A 2012 study at the University of Zurich found that most meat-eating animals can’t taste sugars, bearing mutated forms of the genes responsible for a sweet tooth. In short, whatever the reason, “they like their meat, genets… do, but they also like to wash it down with a slug of flower nectar every now and then!” (Karl Gruber)

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