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Ratel/Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Attribute Male Female
Weight mean= 9.4 kg (20.7 lb) mean= 6.2 (13.7 lb)
Head & Body Length mean= 724 mm (2.4 ft) mean= 636 mm (2.1 ft)
Tail Length 143-230 mm (0.5-0.8 ft) 152-190 mm (0.5-0.6 ft)


Body measurements from Begg et al. (2003b); Vanderhaar and Hwang (2003)

General Appearance

General description (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003 unless otherwise noted)

  • Large-bodied mustelid
    • Stout and muscular (Sclater 1900; Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
    • Capable of carrying prey of approximately half its own bodyweight (Marlow 1983)
  • Similar in appearance to the European badger (Meles meles)

Body shape (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003 unless otherwise noted)

  • Head
    • Massive with a wide base
  • Ears
    • Black
    • Closed when the animal digs
  • Teeth robust
    • 32 total
    • Often exhibit a high degree of wear
  • Limbs
    • Shoulders and neck powerful
    • Feet
      • Underside hairless
        • Plantar pad large and nearly semicircular
      • 5 toes per foot, each with a claw
        • Claws blunt (Pocock 1920)
        • Forefeet broad, claws long and powerful
          • Longest claw (3rd digit) c. 38 mm (1.5 in)
        • Hindfeet longer and more narrow, claws more diminutive
          • Claws do not reach the ground; c. 15 mm (0.6 in) in length
  • Tail short
    • Cylindrical and bushy
    • Base black
    • Tip with gray or white hairs
    • Under surface lacks hair

Facial characteristics (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)

  • Face black
    • Hair sparse
  • Eyes small
    • Black and deep-set
    • Farsighted (longsighted)
    • Reflect light at night
  • Nose brown
    • Wide and well-developed

Adult pelage (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)

  • Hair
    • Coarser and thicker on the back, thinner on towards the belly
    • Length
      • Longest on the upper parts of the hindlimbs, rump, and tail
        • Up to 70 mm (2.8 in) long
      • Shorter on the head (c. 10 mm or 0.4 in) and back (26-35 mm or 1-1.4 in)
    • Underfur lacking in African populations
  • Underparts black
  • Mantle
    • Extends from crown of head to base of tail
    • White, light gray, or gray-brown
      • A few black hairs thinly scattered along mid-line of back
    • White, horizontal line often separates the light-colored mantle from black underparts
      • Prevalent in African populations
      • Not seen in juveniles
    • Color along back darkens with age, though unchanged on the head

Sexual Dimorphism

Size dimorphism (from Begg et al. 2005b unless otherwise noted)

  • Moderately dimorphic
    • Males c. 33% heavier than females
    • Skull of male larger and with a crest along the midline of the crown (Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)

Other Characteristics


  • Anatomic specializations (from Vanderhaar and Hwang 2003)
    • Tongue
      • Numerous sharp, rear-facing papillae (bumps)
    • Skin (integument)
      • Thick and tough
        • 6 mm (0.2 in) thick near the throat
          • Only the underparts have thin skin
        • Impervious to some bee stings, snake fangs, and dog teeth
      • Loose
        • Prevents predators from easily gaining a firm grasp on the animal
        • Capable of turning in their skin to bite an attacker

Small but Mighty

a ratle on a tree stump

This small carnivore is fierce. The black and white hairs of this species overlie tough, thick, and extremely loose skin. It's skin help provide protection from potential predators and dangerous prey (including the highly venomous puff ader and Cape cobra).

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Begg et al. (2003b)
Begg et al. (2005b)
Pocock (1920)
Sclater (1900)
Vanderhaar and Hwang (2003)

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