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Ratel/Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) Fact Sheet: Behavior & Ecology

Activity Cycle

Predominantly nocturnal (from Begg 2001a)

  • Active at night, most often
    • Not uncommonly seen in daylight
      • More common in the cold-dry season in the southern Kalahari

Daily activity patterns (from Begg 2001a unless otherwise noted)

  •  Onset of activity varies
    • Emergence and return times are not necessarily related to sunrise or sunset
  • Forage activity peaks twice each day
    • c. 06:00-09:00 and 16:00-01:00
    • Dip in mid-day and afternoon activity
      • Less pronounced in the cold-dry season
      • Local weather conditions affect activity patterns; individuals are more active on cool, overcast days
  • Sleep within below-ground dens or shallow, above-ground hollows
    • Excavate own burrows or take up residence in those abandoned by other animals
      • Claws on the front feet dig
        • Dirt is flung through the back legs, behind the animal
      • Occupy porcupine, yellow mongoose, aardvark, bat-eared fox, springhare, and Cape fox burrows (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
    • May shelter in hollow trees, under thick bushes, in caves or rock crevices (Begg 2001a; Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
      • Females rarely, if ever, sleep above ground
      • Lie curled up on one side with eyes closed
  • Activity budget
    • Inactive (sleep or rest) for large portions of the day
      • c. 50% of total time
    • Predominant activities
      • Most time spent in intensive forage
        • c. 80-98% of active time (c. 8.5 hours)
      • Social activity accounts for up to c. 15.5% of active time
        • Includes interactions with other ratels and scent marking
        • Females spend significantly less time in social activity (< 2.3%) than males

Travel distance

  • Meander to forage
    • Cover c. 10-27 km/day (6-17 mi/day), typically (Begg et al. 2005b; Kruuk and Mills 1983)

Home Range

Ranges overlap (from Begg et al. 2005b)

  • Large home ranges
    • Adult male ranges overlap with one another
      • Each encompasses the smaller ranges of young males and adult females
        • A single male territory may encompass the ranges of as many as 13 females
    • Females are loosely territorial
      • Their ranges overlap only moderately
        • Most tend to be evenly spaced as they avoid one another
      • No evidence for overt territoriality or interactions between females

Home range size (from Begg et al. 2005b)

  • Male ranges larger than female ranges
    • Adult males inhabit the largest ranges
      • Adult males: c. 541 km2 (c. 209 mi2)
        • Range: 335-624 km2
      • Adult females: c. 126 km2 (c. 49 mi2)
        • Range: 85-194 km2
      • Juvenile males: c. 151 km2 (c. 58 mi2)
      • Range: 82-236 km2
  • No apparent seasonality

Movement within home range (from Begg et al. 2005b)

  • Not concentrated within a core area, typically
    • Individuals rarely reuse the same den on consecutive nights
    • Females with cubs <3 months of age will localize near den sites
      • May use the same site for a few days

Social Groups

Non-social (from Begg 2001a)

  • Interactions do occur
    • Adult females not seen interacting with one another in the wild
      • Males interact with one another and with females
        • Do not cooperate to care for offspring, forage, or defend territory
  • Males more social than females
    • Groups of males known to temporarily associate, for up to c. 1 day
      • 2 individuals most often; as many as 5
        • Some evidence for older male (“scar back”) dominance within such groupings
      • Members straight line trot (one behind the other), often over long distance
        • Individuals regularly scent mark and engage in agonistic interactions

Dominance hierarchy (from Begg 2001a; Verwey et al. 2014)

  • Adult males
    • Recognize a loose, non-linear hierarchy
      • Subordinate status does not preclude successful mating with females, though dominant individuals do father greater proportions of offspring
    • Dominant individuals tend to be heavier, older, and have extensively scarred backs

Social Interactions

Aggression (from Begg 2001a)

  • Males commonly fight with one another
    • The aggressor physically attacks another, often inflicting wounds
    • Wounds and scars commonly appear on the face, neck, and upper belly
  • Forms of aggression
    • Intimidation
      • Aggressor stands tall, stiff-legged with head held high
        • Signal with tail
          • Held vertically above the body
          • Hairs erect, appearing as a “bottlebrush”
      • Recipient often exhibits appeasement behaviors
        • Head and body low to the ground
        • Tail held down
    • Hit or shove with the body
      • Aggressor approaches slowly with a stiff-legged posture
      • Push with the side of the body, flanks touching
    • Chase
    • Bite
    • Rake (scrape) with the claws

Comfort Behaviors

Bath, groom, and scratch

  • Sand-bath (Begg 2001a)
    • Throw sand onto the flanks and body with the front paws while lying down
  • Groom and scratch (from Begg 2001a)
    • Nibble the skin and hair

Play

Uncommon (from Begg 2001a)

  • ‘Play-wrestle’
    • Male-male interaction; may occur between two juveniles or young adults

Communication

Vocalization (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003 unless otherwise noted)

  • Calls of warning or intimidation
    • Growl
      • A deep, drawn-out, ominous sound
    • Hiss
      • A harsh, grating sound
        • High-pitched screaming bark or “haarr-haarr”
    • Grunts, bark–screams, and rattling roars (Estes 1991)
  • Juvenile distress calls
    • Faintly squeak and whine
    • Hiccupping call

Olfaction/Scent Marking (from Begg et al. 2003a unless otherwise noted)

  • Regularly mark objects within the environment
  • Forms of scent marking
    • Latrines
      • Common defecation sites; used by more than one ratel
      • Males visit and use latrines more frequently than females
        • Females attend latrines when in estrus
      • Individuals often inspect latrine sites prior to use
        • Walk slowly across site while smelling it intensively
        • Tail often held erect
    • Anal gland secretions
      • Discharge characteristics
        • Yellow discharge; appears similar to liquid mustard (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
        • Odor with a heavy stench; apparent to humans at >45 m (148 ft) (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
      • Marking methods
        • Squat mark
          • Press anal gland to the ground repeatedly while in a squatting position
          • Frequently occurs near latrines
        • Anal drag
          • Squat with pelvis depressed so that anus touches the ground with tail raised in an arc over the body
          • Hind-end is dragged along
          • Frequently occurs near latrines
        • Dribble secretions when excited (Begg et al. 2003a; Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
          • Do not squirt contents of the gland
    • Urine deposition
      • Urinate within foraging holes and while traveling along foraging paths
    • Rub, scratch, and roll
      • Apply odorants from latrines, urine, or anal gland secretions to the body
        • Stroke the belly, neck, and chin against marked areas
          • Often with front legs splayed out and tail raised
        • Scratch at and roll in marked areas

Locomotion

Walk and trot quadupedally (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003 unless otherwise noted)

  • Slow winding walk
    • Lumber, rather bow-legged
    • Endure long distance travel
      • Possibly covering up to 35 km (22 mi) in a single night (Estes 1991)
  • Swinging trot or gallop
    • Slow and clumsy (Estes 1991)
      • Manner appears similar to that of a bear
    • Tail raised above the level of the back (Sillero-Zubiri 1996)

Tumble, roll, and somersault (from Estes 1991)

  • Actions form components of displays between adult males
  • Tumble down hills, presumably in play

Climb trees

  • Scale rough, wide trunks (Begg and Begg 2002)
  • Descend tail first

Swim and dive (from Estes 1991)

  • Submerge to capture turtles

Interspecies Interactions

Predators

  • Few natural predators (Estes 1991)
    • Large carnivores prey on ratel (from Begg 2001a)
      • Leopard (Panthera pardus), lion (Panthera leo), and spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta)
    • Cub specific predators
      • Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
  • Predator avoidance and defense (from Begg et al. 2003a unless otherwise noted)
    • Actively avoid predators when possible (Begg 2001a)
    • Vocalize loudly with a ‘rattle-roar’
    • Typically stand ground and fight, rather than flee (Begg 2001a; Begg et al. 2003a)
      • Body strongly positioned, tail erect
      • Dribble offensive-smelling anal gland secretions
      • Charge predators with pilo-erection
      • Bite at attacker when caught
        • Loose skin of the ratel makes capture difficult
        • Bite described as ‘savage’ by some (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)

Symbiotic relationships

  • Parasites (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
    • Ectoparasites
      • Ticks (Amblyomma javanensis, Boophilus microplus, and Haemaphysalis indica)
    • Intestinal infections
      • Nematodes (Artyfechinostomum sufrartyfex) and trematodes (Strongyloides akbari and Unicinaria stenocephala)
  • Foraging associations (from Begg 2001b unless otherwise noted)
    • Relations with other predators
      • Many carnivorous mammals and birds follow foraging ratels
        • Mammals:
          • Black-backed jackal commonly found in association with ratels
          • African wild cat (Felis lybica)
        • Birds:
          • Pale Chanting-goshawk (Melierax canorus) commonly found in association with ratels
          • Barn and Marsh owls, Spotted Eagle Owl, and Ant Eating Chat
          • No indication of an association with the Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator) (Dean et al. 1990)
      • Ratels may act to increase other species’ hunting opportunities and intake rates
        • Rodents fleeing from digging ratels caught by other species
          • Pale Chanting-goshawk
            • Follow ratels active during daylight; several birds often seen with a ratel
              • It is unlikely that the bird leads ratel to potential prey
              • Most often follow female ratel
            • Association may be lengthy (over 6 hours); most commonly for c. 1 hour
            • Often perch near a ratel den and await the animal’s emergence
          • Black-backed jackal
            • Less commonly associated with ratel compared to the Pale Chanting-goshawk
            • Follow ratels by day and night
              • Most often follow female ratel
            • May interact aggressively with them
              • Attempt to steal food
            • May rest near a ratel den and await the animal’s emergence

Foraging Behavior

a ratel stalking

Ratels are highly active and will walk or trot to cover great distances each day in search of food. An individual may spend most of its waking hours traveling in a meandering pattern to cover 10-27 km (6-17 mi) each day.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Global. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Begg (2001a)
Begg and Begg (2002)
Begg et al. (2003a)
Begg et al. (2005b)
Dean et al. (1990)
Estes (1991)
Kruuk and Mills (1983)
Sillero-Zubiri (1996)
Vanderhaar and Hwang (2003)
Verwey et al. (2014)

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