Comprehensive DescriptionRead full entry
Jennings and Veron (2009) recognized 34 extant species, placed in 14 genera, in the family Viverridae. Viverrids are found in Asia and Africa. One species, the Common Genet (Genetta genetta) is found in Europe and the southwestern Arabian Penisula as well, but may have been introduced to Spain and spread at least through the Iberian Peninsula in historical times. Some Asian viverrids have been introduced to various island in Southeast Asia.
Viverrids are generally forest-dwellers, though some may be found in savannas and other grasslands, and are found from sea level up to around 3800 m. For most species, habitat preferences are poorly known.
Historically, the Viverridae has included the mongooses, the linsangs, and the African Palm Civet, but based in part on molecular phylogenetic studies, these are now often placed in their own families, the Herpestidae, Prionodontidae, and Nandiniidae, respectively. Several carnivore species from Madagascar were at one time also believed to belong in the Viverridae, but all Malagasy carnivores are now placed together in their own family, the Eupleridae.
Jennings and Veron (2009) recognized four subfamilies within the Viverridae, including the three traditional subfamilies Hemigalinae, Paradoxurinae, and Viverrinae, as well as the Genettinae, proposed by Gaubert and Cordeiro-Estrela (2006):
1) Hemigalinae ("palm civets" and Otter Civet). The subfamily Hemigalinare includes at least four species (Owston's Palm Civet [Chrotogale owstoni], Banded Palm Civet [Hemigalus derbyanus], Hose's Palm Civet [Diplogale hosei], and the apparently semi-aquatic Otter Civet [Cynogale bennettii]), all found in Southeast Asia. Jennings and Veron note that the three hemigaline "palm civets" have sometimes been placed together in the genus Hemigalus, but that this treatment may be inconsistent with recent molecular phylogenetic data. Wilting and Fickel (2012) argue that "palm" should be dropped from the common names of all hemigalines to avoid any implied close relationship with the "true" palm civets (in the subfamily Paradoxurinae)
2) Paradoxurinae (palm civets and Binturong). The subfamily Paradoxurinae as treated by Jennings and Veron (2009) includes at least seven civet species, all of them Asian and arboreal. However, a subsequent molecular phylogenetic study suggested that including the Small-toothed Palm Civet (Arctogalidia trivirgata) in this subfamily may render the Paradoxurinae paraphyletic (Agnarsson et al. 2010). Similarly, the authors of a molecular genetic study using museum skins concluded that the Sulawesi Palm Civet (Macrogalidia musschenbroekii) actually falls within the Hemigalinae, not within the Paradoxurinae where it was placed by Jennings and Veron and previous authors (Wilting and Fickel 2012).
3) Viverrinae (terrestrial civets). Viverrids in the subfamily Viverrinae, all of which are terrestrial and known as civets, include the African Civet (Civettictis civetta) and five or six Asian species.
4) Genettinae (genets and oyans). The species in the subfamily Genettinae, which are semi-arboreal and known as genets or oyans, are all found only in Africa (with the exception of the Common Genet, which is also found in the Iberian and southwestern Arabian Peninsulas, as noted above). Jennings and Veron recognized 17 genettine species, but emphasize that species boundaries in the genus Genetta have been controversial and that the number of recognized species may change with further study. Included in this subfamily is the very poorly known Aquatic Genet (Genetta piscivora) of central Africa, which is believed to be semi-aquatic and to subsist largely on fish; this species was at one time judged to be so distinct that it was placed in its own genus (Osbornictis), but molecular phylogenetic studied have suggested that it belongs in the genus Genetta and that its morphological peculiarities are adaptations to its semi-aquatic lifestyle.
Most viverrids are relatively small (with the smallest, the African oyans, weighing in at just over half a kilogram), but the African Civet and the Binturong (Arctictis binturong) may reach 20 kg. In general, viverrids are long and slender with a long snout, small ears, relatively short legs, and a long tail. The Binturong is the only viverrid known to have a prehensile tail. In most viverrid species, males and females are similar in appearance. Viverrids are generally nocturnal and range from terrestrial (civets) to semi-arboreal (genets, oyans) or arboreal (palm civets). Most (possibly all) viverrids have a scent gland between the anus and genitals that produces a strong-smelling substance known as civet (or civet oil) used for scent-marking (the secretion contains a macrocyclic ketone known as civetone and can retain its odor for several months). Although the smell of civet oil can be nauseating to humans at high concentrations, at very low concentrations it is very pleasant and has been used in the manufacture of perfumes for centuries. Civet oil has been largely replaced in the perfume industry by synthetic musks, but it is still used and in Africa (at least in Ethiopia) and in Asia (at least in India) civets are kept (but apparently not bred) on "farms" for civet extraction (conditions on these farms have been deplored by animal welfare activists and since the farms are continually restocked from the wild, they deplete wild stocks). Viverrids are hunted for food, both legally and illegally, throughout Africa and Asia. In addition to subsistence hunting, there has been a growing illegal trade for food, traditional medicine, skins (at least locally), and pets.
Information on the diets of most viverrid species is quite limited. The paradoxurine palm civets are mainly frugivorous, but also take small invertebrates and vertebrates. The terrestrial civets are broadly omnivorous, feeding on small vertebrates, invertebrates, and fruit; they are reputed to be excellent rat killers and may have been introduced long ago to various parts of the world for this reason, although they can take chickens and crops and are therefore often viewed as pests by farmers. The genets are mainly carnivorous, feeding on small vertebrates and invertebrates, although they may consume some fruit as well. Johnston's Genet (Genetta johnstoni) is believed to be largely insectivorous and the Aquatic Genet is believed to feed mainly on fish. Owston's Palm Civet is thought to feed mainly on earthworms, although small vertebrates, insects, and fruits may also be taken.
Viverrids are among the most poorly studied of all Carnivora. At least one species, the Malabar Civet (Viverra civettina), is ranked as Critically Endangered by IUCN (upgraded from probably extinct) and a number of others are ranked as Endangered or Vulnerable—but the information on which status assessments have been made for most viverrids is very limited. As for most taxonomic groups, the greatest conservation threat is believed to be habitat loss and degradation, although hunting poses a serious threat to some species as well.
(Jennings and Veron 2009 and references therein)