8 Close, But Not Quite Cats
In the taxonomic nomenclature, which has changed a lot since I learned the system, there is a level wedged between order and family called either “suborder” or “superfamily.” The order of Carnivore has two suborders; Caniformia is one, which means “dog-like." It includes dogs, of course, but also bears, skunks, raccoons, seals, and walruses. The other is Feliformia, which mean “cat-like.” That includes the family Felidae, which is cats. But besides cats (and strangely, hyenas), Feliformia includes species you may not be familiar with.
The Fossa (Cryptoprocta ferox) lives in Madagascar. It is related to the mongoose, but looks more like a cat, and in fact has been compared to a small cougar. The largest carnivore in Madagascar, it eats lemurs and other small animals. As a female Fossa matures, she goes through a stage of “masculinization,” in which her genitals elongate and resemble a spiny penis. Fossas are considered a vulnerable species and are protected in reserves, but are still hunted and eaten in some communities. Because they are widespread and claim a large individual territory, it is hard to get meaningful numbers on their population. Some natives consider them vermin due to their tendency to prey on chickens and small livestock.
The Falanouc (Eupleres goudotii) also lives in Madagascar and belongs to the same family as the Fossa, but resembles a mongoose more than its cousin. Its teeth are different from most of its taxonomically close relatives because the Falanouc eats mainly insects and earthworms.
3. African Civet
There are over a dozen species of civet in Africa and Asia belonging to several genera. What they have in common is their anal musk glands, which they use to mark territory and attract mates. Civets look like cats with the elongated bodies of otters or weasels. The African Civet (Civettictis civetta) is the most common species and the one from which perfumers traditionally obtain musk -although more recently, the synthetic civetone is used instead. African Civets are found in the savannah, forests, and rainforests of Africa. They have masked face markings like a raccoon.
The name Mongoose refers to 29 different species in the family Herpestidae, which live in southern Europe, southern Asia, and in Africa. They are famous for their ability to fight snakes. The mongoose has receptors for acetylcholine that reject the neurotoxins in snake venom much like snakes themselves have. Therefore, they are immune to snake venom. Another distinctive trait is the mongoose’s horizontally-shaped pupils. Incidentally, when you encounter two or more of these animals, the plural is mongooses, but don’t laugh when someone uses mongeese.
There are four species of linsang, two in Africa, and two in Asia. The Asiatic Linsang (Prionodon) comes in two flavors: banded or spotted. That describes their body markings; both have long striped tails. The Banded linsang is the rarest of all the civets. It resembles a weasel or ferret, with a longer tail and more catlike teeth, and lives in the treetops of the rainforest. Not much is known about their lifestyles.
The Binturong (Arctictis binturong), also called the bearcat, is found in Southeast Asia. It looks and moves like a small round bear, and is a distant relative to genets, palm civets, and the linsang. Despite belonging to the order Carnivora, the Binturong eats mostly fruit. They will also eat meat, eggs, fish, and insects when the opportunity arises. Binturongs spend most of their time in trees, which is made easier by their ankles, which can turn 180 degrees, and their prehensile tails, which can grip like a fifth limb.
The Genet (Genetta genetta) is often mistaken for a cat, although it is more closely related to the mongoose. The couple of dozen species range throughout Africa, and the Common Genet also lives in Europe. Genets are sometimes kept as house pets. Earlier this year, a camera trap caught a genet hitching a ride on a buffalo and a rhinoceros in South Africa. It was determined that it was the same genet, and it had made a habit of riding other animals on different occasions.
Not all Feliformia are obscure. We all know meerkats (Suricata suricatta) for their charming habit of scanning the horizon for danger as if they were posing for the camera, and for a Disney character named Timon. Meerkats are mongooses of the family Herpestidae, of the genus Suricata. What sets them apart is their tendency to live in clans of 20 to 50 animals, and that habit of standing on their back feet in order to see across the African plain. Meerkats are social and loyal to the group, often babysitting and even nursing each other’s young.
These are just a few of the many species of Feliformia. Others include the hyena, aardwolf, and of course, all the members of the family Felidae, which are cats.