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Ratel/Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Common names (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003, unless otherwise noted)

  • Ratel
    • Name drawn from the animal’s tendency to produce aggressive, rattling grunts; assigned by Dutch settlers in South Africa
  • Honey badger
    • Name reflects the animal’s physical similarity to European badgers and its fondness for honey and the larvae of wild bees
  • Gorpat
    • Sindhi name for the animal meaning “gravedigger”
    • Name reflects a supposed propensity of the animal to dig up fresh grave sites (Bennett 1830)
  • Ntaulira
    • Luganda name for the animal meaning “that which does not hear”
    • Alluding to the animal’s small ears

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Mellivora from Greek and Latin; meli (Gr) meaning “honey” and voro (L) meaning “to eat” or “to devour” (Begg and Begg 2002; Brown 1956)
    • Specific epithet capensis refers to the Cape of Good Hope where the first described specimens were collected (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
  • Synonyms (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
    • Mellivora ratel, M. ratelus, M. leuconata, M. cottoni, M. concise, M. signata, M. abyssinica, M. sagulata, M. brockmani, M. wilsoni, M. maxwelli,  and M. buchanani
    • Viverra capensis and V. ratel
    • Ursus indicus and U. mellivorus
    • Meles mellivorus
    • Many others

Evolutionary History

Superfamily Musteloidea (from Sato et al. 2012)

  • “Weasel-like” carnivores
    • Includes weasels, otters, martens, badgers and their mustelid relatives, raccoons and their procyonid relatives, red panda, skunks, and stink badgers
    • Encompasses c. 30% of extant (living) carnivoran species diversity
    • Distribution widespread; found in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas
      • Introduced to New Zealand by humans
  • Origins
    • Likely emerged and diversified in Asia
    • c. 32.4-30.9 million years ago (Mya), based on one molecular analysis (Sato et al. 2012)
    • Oldest fossils, Mustelictis olivieri, dates to c. 32.8-30.9 Mya
  • Four primary divisions
    • Mephitidae
    • Ailuridae
    • Procyonidae
    • Mustelidae

Family Mustelidae (from Sato et al. 2012)

  • Diversity
    • Includes otters, badgers, minks, wolverines, martens, grisons, and weasels
  • Evolutionary origins
    • Arose c. 16.1 Mya in the early, mid-Miocene
    • Diversification within the family primarily occurred in Asia

Genus Mellivora

  • Early divergence compared to other badger genera (Koepfli et al. 2008; Koepfli et al. 2017)
    • 12-13 Mya
    • Forms monophyletic sister clade to other badger clades
  • African fossil record (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
    • Found in Africa since the late Miocene (about 12 Mya)
    • Likely arrived from India via Arabia; just prior to the opening of the Red Sea rift

M. capensis (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)

  • Fossil record
    • Oldest record from the Ngorora Formation, Kenya
      • Dated to c. 10 million years ago (Mya)
    • Numerous remains dated within the Pleistocene (2.6 Mya – 11,700 y)

Cultural History

Mythology and Folklore

  • Somali myths
    • A man bitten by the animal loses his fertility (Drake-Brockman 1910)
  • Modern myths & rumors
    • Myth: ratels are led to beehives by the Greater Honeyguide (Indicator indicator) (Dean et al. 1990)
      • Initially reported in 1785 and repeated by many since
      • There is no indication that the bird (a diurnal animal active in daylight) guides nocturnal ratel (who is primarily active at night), though this behavior has been noted between the bird and humans
    • Myth: ratels are invincible
      • Often called the “meanest animal in the world”; reports of its indestructible nature are inaccurate
      • Adults fall prey to leopard (Panthera pardus), lion (Panthera leo), and spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) (Begg 2001a)
      • Thick, loose skin helps protect against bee stings, but individuals have been found stung to death by honeybees (Begg and Begg 2002)
      • Ratel do have some degree of resistance to snake venom; as do some other mustelids (Begg and Begg 2004; Voss and Jansa 2012)
        • Possibly due to the thickness of its skin; when bitten, only small amounts of venom are likely injected (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
    • Myth: ratels fumigate beehives with their scent glands (Begg and Begg 2002)
      • Descriptions of ratels anaesthetizing bees or emptying hives by performing handstands and spraying have not been confirmed by scientists working in the southern Kalahari
    • Myth: ratels form monogamous pairs and forage together
      • Adults rarely socialize with one another outside of mating (Begg 2001a)
      • “Pairs” are misinterpretations of a mother foraging with her offspring, for whom she provides extended care (Begg et al. 2005a)
        • Juvenile male offspring outgrow their mother relatively quickly, though they remain with her until nearly 1.5 years of age

Popular culture resources

  • Documentaries
    • Snake Killers: Honey Badgers of the Kalahari – 2001 National Geographic film detailing the lives of wild honey badgers; 3 years worth of footage shot in conjunction with the first intensive study of these amazing carnivores
    • Ultimate Honey Badger – 2014 National Geographic film follows the life of Badgie as she learns how to survive on her own in Africa
    • Honey Badgers: Masters of Mayhem – 2014 PBS Nature program follows a team of South African researchers in search for the truth behind the highly intelligent animal
  • "Honey Badger Don’t Care" meme
    • Grew from a 2011 YouTube video which featured ‘borrowed’ footage from a (2001) National Geographic documentary on the ornery and tough honey badger
      • The basic premise is that these animals are tough and eat anything and so they can take on anything

Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Suborder: Caniformia

Superfamily: Musteloidea

Family: Mustelidae

Subfamily: Mustelinae - wolverines, martens, and weasels

Genus: Mellivora

Species: Mellivora capensis* (Schreber, 1776)

(from ITIS 2014)

*No genetic studies yet conducted to identify subspecies (Do Linh San et al. 2016). Wozencraft (2005) list 12 subspecies from the literature based on pelage and other physical characteristics (these subspecies have not been adopted by the IUCN).

Early Rendering

Painting of a Ratel

18th Century plate from Schreber's Die Saugthiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur (1774).

Image Credit: Artist unknown. Image within the public domain in the U.S. and Europe. Available from openlibrary.org.

Page Citations

Begg and Begg (2002)
Begg and Begg (2004)
Begg et al. (2005a)
Bennett (1830)
Brown (1956)
Dean et al. (1990)
Drake-Brockman (1910)
ITIS (2014)
Sato et al. (2012)
Vanderhaar and Hwang (2003)
Voss and Jansa (2012)

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