Viverridae: Civet Family

The 34 or so species in this family include civets, palm civets, and Malagasy civets. They are found in south-west Europe, Africa, Madagascar and Asia.

The civet family closely resembles the ancestors of the carnivores and they are believed to have remained more or less unchanged for millions of years, although between species within the family there is great variation in build. Most have large, pointed ears on the top of the head, five toes with claws and at least partial webbing. The coat is usually spotted or striped in some way.

Most civets are nocturnal, solitary tree-dwellers and they are generally omnivorous, though the palm civet will eat only fruit.

Many species emit a strong-smelling oily secretion from anal scent glands (civet glands) which is used to advertise the presence of the animal in a territory and probably to attract a mate. The active ingredient of these secretions — musk — has been used by man in the manufacture of perfume for several centuries and for some African and oriental countries it remains an important export, despite the introduction of synthetic musk.

Palm Civet

Size: 54 cm (21 in); 3.5 kg (7.7 lb).

Also known as the toddy cat, this carnivore is found throughout most of Southeast Asia, from Timor to India. The palm civet has distinctive markings, with black stripes down its back and small spots on its face. Civets divide their time between the ground and branches, where they feed on fruits, nuts and bulbs. They pick their fruit carefully, leaving less ripe fruit for eating at a later date.

Masked Palm Civet

Range: Himalayas to China, Hainan, Taiwan, S.E. Asia, Sumatra, Borneo.

Habitat: Forest, brush.

Size: Body: 19.75 -30 in (50-76 cm); Tail: 20 - 25.25 in (51 - 64 cm).

The masked palm civet has a plain gray or brownish-red body, with no stripes or spots, but with distinctive, white masklike markings on the face. It is nocturnal and hunts in the trees and on the ground for rodents and other small animals, as well as for insects, fruit and plant roots. The secretions of its anal glands are extremely strong-smelling and can be sprayed considerable distances to discourage any attacker.

A litter of 3 or 4 young is born in a hole in a tree. The young are grayer than adults and do not have conspicuous face masks at first, but gradually develop them with age.

Banded Palm Civet

Range: Malaysia, Sumatra, Borneo.

Habitat: Forest.

Size: Body: 16 - 20 in (41 - 51 cm); Tail: 9.75 - 15 in (25 - 38 cm).

The banded palm civet has a slender, elongate body and a tapering, pointed snout. It is usually whitish to orange buff in color, with broad, dark stripes on the head and neck, behind the shoulders and at the base of the tail.

The banded palm civet is a nocturnal animal and rests during the day in holes in tree trunks. It is an excellent climber, with strong feet well adapted to life in the trees, and it forages for its prey in trees, on the forest floor and beside streams. Worms and locusts are its main foods, but it also eats rats, lizards, ants, spiders, crustaceans, land and aquatic snails and frogs. Little is known of its breeding habits, though between 1 and 3 young are born in each litter and the offspring begin to eat solid food at about 10 weeks old.

African Palm Civet

Active at night, the African palm civet is a skilful climber and spends much of its life in trees. They also forage on the ground and have been known to venture out of the forest into more open habitats in search of food. African palm civets are omnivores - they eat all types of food. Its diet is varied, ranging from insects, lizards, small mammals and birds to many kinds of fruit (which may sometimes be its sole food), leaves, grass and some carrion. It is a solitary animal and it spends the day resting in the shelter of the trees.

The mottled coat of an African palm civet helps it to blend in to the background in the dappled light of the forest. Although common animals, they are seldom seen.

When catching live prey, such as rodents or birds, with their forepaws, the civets use their long tails, which are generally the same length as their body, as a balance. The flexible hind feet can also be twisted considerably to get a good grip.

The male tends to be larger and heavier than the female and both have short legs and long, thick tails. The short muzzle is adorned with long whiskers. Usually grayish-brown to dark reddish-brown in color, this civet has a pale, creamy spot on each shoulder. This is the origin of its other common name - the two-spotted palm civet.

Civets are most active in the hours just after sunset and before dawn. They have scent glands between their toes, which exude a brown sticky substance. Along with other secretions this is used to mark territory. However, the foot glands might also be used to leave a trail of scent that the civet can follow back to its resting place in the dark.

The male occupies a home range and he uses his scent gland to mark its boundaries. Mating takes place in June and the female gives birth to a litter of 2 or 3 young after a gestation period of about 64 days.

Distribution: Central Africa from Equatorial Guinea, including Bioko, to Sudan, Angola and Mozambique.

Habitat: Tropical forests and woodlands.

Food: Rodents, carrion, fruits, insects and eggs.

Size: 50 cm (19.75 in); 1.7 - 2.1 kg (3.75 - 4.5 lb).

Maturity: 1 year.

Breeding: 2 litters of up to 4 young produced in May and October.

Life span: Unknown; other similar species live for about 15 years.

Status: Common.


Along with many of Madagascar's mammals, falanoucs are in danger of extinction. The boggy lowland forests they occupy are being drained and cut down to make way for farms and other human developments. In addition, the small Indian civet has been introduced to the island, and this species appears to be contributing to the falanouc's downfall.

This animal is a little larger than a domestic cat. It has a pointed snout for probing through leaf litter and a thick, cylindrical tail.

The falanouc, also known as the small toothed mongoose, with its long, slender body, pointed muzzle and short legs, does resemble a mongoose. The hind legs are longer than the forelegs. The tail is thick and bushy. Active at dusk and during the night, the falanouc does not climb or jump well, but slowly hops along the ground, searching for earthworms (its main food), insects, water snails, frogs and sometimes even small mammals and birds. It readily wades into water in pursuit of prey. When food is abundant, the falanouc stores fat near the base of its tail and lives on it during the dry season.

Falanoucs are nocturnal foragers. By day they sleep inside hollow logs or in rocky crevices. They live alone but might form into groups in areas that have plenty of food. Falanoucs forage by rooting through leaf litter for worms and other buried invertebrates. They have long claws for digging into the soil to find food. The falanouc's cheek teeth are pointed and are used for stabbing prey. The teeth resemble those of moles and shrews more than they do other small carnivores, which have teeth built for slicing.

Falanoucs pair for life. Each pair lives in a territory, the boundaries of which are marked with secretions from the scent glands. The female bears 1 young, after a gestation of about 12 weeks, which is born with a full covering of hair and with its eyes open; it is weaned at 9 weeks.

Distribution: North-western and eastern Madagascar.

Habitat: Lowland forests.

Food: Earthworms.

Size: 45 - 65 cm (17.75 - 25.5 in); 2 - 4 kg (4.5 - 8.75 lb).

Maturity: 1 year.

Breeding: Litter of 1 - 2 young born in dens between November and January.

Life span: Unknown.

Status: Endangered.

Malagasy Civet

Size: 42 cm (16.5 in); 1.75 kg (3.75 lb).

The Malagasy civet is found throughout Madagascar, where it occupies most of the island's types of tropical forest. The local name for this fox-like species is fanaloka. They have a thick coat of short, brown fur, which has four lines of dark spots along the back. This species of civet preys on small rodents and unusual insectivores called tenrecs - another of the island's many unique species. They also feed on small birds, crabs, frogs and reptiles. During periods of drought, when food is less easy to come by, the civets survive by metabolizing fats stored in their tails during times of plenty. Malagasy civets mate between August and September and a single young is born three months later.

Congo Water Civet

Range: Africa: N.E. Zaire.

Habitat: Rain forest near streams.

Size: Body: 17.75 - 19.75 in (45 - 50 cm); Tail: 13.75 - 16.5 in (35 - 42 cm).

The Congo water civet is an elusive animal that has been seen only rarely. It is thought to be nocturnal and to lead a semi-aquatic life. It is believed to feed largely on fish, and possibly also on crustaceans and other aquatic creatures, which it probably finds by touch with its naked palms under rocks, then grabbing with its semi-retractile claws and delivering a quick, sharp killing bite.

The Congo water civet has a slender body and a small head with a pointed snout. It has short legs and the hind legs are longer than the forelegs. The tail is long, thick and bushy. The civet's coat is reddish, chestnut-brown, with darker hair on the backs of the ears and the middle of the back and tail, and a white chin and throat.


Range: Indo-China, Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra.

Habitat: Swamps, near rivers

Size: Body: 22.5 - 26.25 in (57 - 67 cm); Tail: 5 - 7.75 in (13 - 20 cm).

The otter-civet spends much of its life in water and has several adaptations for its aquatic habits. Like many aquatic mammals, it has short, dense underfur, which is waterproof, covered by a layer of longer, coarse guard hairs. Its nostrils open upward and can be closed off by flaps, and the ears can also be closed. The otter-civet’s feet are supple and have broad webs; these webs are only partial and do not extend to the tips of the digits, so the animal is able to move as well on land as in water.

With only the tip of its nose above the water, the otter-civet is almost invisible as it swims and so is able to ambush creatures that come to the water’s edge to drink, as well as taking prey in water.

Fish, small mammals, birds and crustaceans are all included in the otter-civet’s diet, and it also eats fruit. It has long, sharp teeth for seizing prey and broad, flat molars, which it uses to crush hard-shelled items such as crustaceans. On land, it climbs well and may take refuge in a tree if attacked, rather than making for water.

A litter of 2 or 3 young is born in a burrow or hollow tree. They become independent at about 6 months old.