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Kinkajou (Potos flavus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History and Nomenclature

Common names

  • English names
    • Kinkajou, honey bear, night ape, and nightwalker (de la Rosa and Nocke 2000; Ford and Hoffmann 1988; Reid 1997)
  • Spanish names
    • Mico león and mico de noche (de la Rosa and Nocke 2000; Reid 1997)
    • Long list of regional common names (see Hernandez-Camacho 1977)
  • Etymology of kinkajou
    • Algonquin origin; French adaptation of a word meaning “wolverine” that was later transferred to the South American (Potos) animal (Gove 1993)

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Genus Potos, two possible origins
      • Derived from potto a native people’s term for the animal (Gotch 1995)
        • Initially suggested in 1968, though little evidence supports this assertion (Hernandez-Camacho 1977)
      • Named after the similarly appearing potto (Perodictus potto); an African primate
        • Derived from the Latin word poto meaning “drink” (Brown 1956)
    • Specific epithet flavus from the Latin work for yellow (Brown 1956; Gotch 1995; Gove 1993)
  • Synonyms
    • Numerous
      • Confusion by many early describers (reviewed in Husson 1978)
    • Lemur flavus – originally (incorrectly) identified as a type of lemur (Kays and Gittleman 1995)
    • Cercoleptes caudivolvulus (Husson 1978)

Evolutionary History

Family Procyonidae (from Zeveloff 2002 unless otherwise noted)

  • Family members
    • Includes raccoons, olingos, and coatis
      • All living members live on the continents of North and South America (McClearn 1992)
      • Few fossil records (Fulton and Strobeck 2007)
  • Ancestral lineages
    • Likely share a common ancestor with red pandas
    • Descended within the dog branch, Vulpavines
      • Vulpavines include dogs (canids), bears (ursids), weasels (mustelids) and their relatives
    • Most closely related to weasels; a strong affinity to bears
  • Center of evolution and diversification
    • Eurasia
      • Fossils from France and Germany record high diversity of procyonids
    • Date to c. 18-28 million years ago (Ma), end of the Oligocene (Zeveloff 2002; Helgen et al. 2013)
  • North American colonization and diversification
    • c. 16-19 Ma
    • Migration across the Bearing Strait possible
    • Among the first carnivores in South America (Fulton and Strobeck 2007)

Genus Potos (from Fulton and Strobeck 2007; Koepfli et al. 2007 unless otherwise noted)

  • Diverged earlier than other living procyonids
    • c. 21.6-24 Ma: split from closely related groups (Nasua/Sassaricyon and Bassariscus/Procyon); one molecular based phylogeny (Koepfli et al. 2007)
    • No fossil records pre-dating 1 Ma (Koepfli et al. 2007)
  • Postulated origins
    • Central or South America, though a North American origin is possible (Ford and Hoffmann 1988)

Cultural History

Mythology and Folklore

  • Colombian superstition
    • A member of your family will die if a kinkajou barks during the day (Ford and Hoffmann 1988)

Exploited by humans

  • Hunted for their pelts (Cabrera and Yepes 1960)
  • Meat eaten by some (Husson 1978)
  • Captured for sale in the pet trade (Kays et al. 2008)

Popular culture resources

  • Children's books
    • A Kinkajou on the Town (1967) by RG Montgomery – the story of Benny the kinkajou and his clever antics.
  • Documentaries
    • Sights & Sounds of the Kinkajou – 2003 National Geographic documentary; brief (c. 10 min.) video that details basic biology and behavior of kinkajous with exquisite photography by Mattias Klum.
    • The Dark: Natures Nightime World – 2012 BBC series; contains a segment in episode 1, “Central American Jungle”, in which filmmakers follow a kinkajou as it moves through the canopy at night.
    • Life in the Jungle Canopy: Kinkajou – 2010 NHK documentary (Japan’s public broadcaster), award winning film follows the night life of kinkajou and other animals in their Central American rainforest home
    • Click here to view another brief National Geographic video
  • Notable ZOONOOZ appearances
    • “Out on a Limb: Prehensile Tales” – August 2001 article by N Boyd; describes several animals with prehensile tails including the kinkajou
    • “Driving the Amazing Miss Maisy" – February 2000 article by M Hanley; the story of animal ambassador Maisy the kinkajou


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Suborder: Caniformia

Family: Procyonidae - procyonids (olingos, ringtails, coatis, raccoons)

Genus: Potos

Species: Potos flavus* (Schreber, 1774) - kinkajou

*Nascimento et al. (2017) suggest additional species or subspecies designations may be warranted (based on DNA evidence). As of Apr 2019, subspecies taxonomy not yet formalized.

Early Rendering

Kinkajou plate in Dictionnaire Universel d'Histoire Naturelle

Artistic work appearing in d'Orbigny's 1849 book Dictionnaire Universel d'Histoire Naturelle.

Image within the public domain in the U.S.

Page Citations

Brown (1956)
Cabrera and Yepes (1960)
de la Rosa and Nocke (2000)
Decker and Wozencraft (1991)
Ford and Hoffman (1988)
Fulton and Strobeck (2007)
Gotch (1995)
Gove (1993)
Helgren et al. (2013)
Hernandez-Camacho (1977)
Husson (1978)
ITIS (2014)
Kays and Gittleman (1995)
Koepfli et al. (2007)
McClearn (1992)
Reid (1997)
Zeveloff (2002)

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