40 African Civet Facts: Body Features, Life, and Behavior
An Interesting Mammal
The African civet in a medium-sized and generally solitary mammal with some intriguing features. It’s a common animal in Africa south of the Sahara Desert and lives in forests and on the savanna. Unfortunately, in some areas it's kept in captivity so that the musk that it produces can be collected and sold. The animal belongs to the carnivore family known as the Viverridae and has the scientific name Civettictis civetta. It's sometimes referred to as an African civet cat, but it's not a member of the cat family (the Felidae).
In this article I list forty facts about the African civet that may surprise you. There are probably many more facts about the animal to be discovered. Since it's generally nocturnal, it's hard to study the civet in its natural habitat. Even so, what is already known about the animal is very interesting.
Distribution, Habitat, and Body Facts
1. African civets are found in the sub-Saharan part of Africa. They avoid the desert countries in Northern Africa and the dry ones in the southern tip.
2. The animals live primarily in forested areas. The only time that they are seen in arid places is when they are travelling beside a river.
3. A particular African civet looks different from every other member of its species (as far as we know). Each animal has its own combination of black or dark brown stripes, spots, and blotches on a white, cream, light brown, or grey background. The fur is short and dense.
4. All members of the species have a black mask next to and below their eyes that resembles that of a raccoon. They also have a pale muzzle and black lower legs. The tail has incomplete white, cream, or light brown rings.
5. The body fur of a civet is thick and dense. The hair on its tail is longer.
6. When an animal feels threatened or excited, it fluffs up its fur and erects the black hair of the crest along its spine, which makes it look bigger. The hair of the crest is sometimes known as a mane.
7. The attractive coat of the civet provides camouflage. The varied colors and shapes on the coat help to disguise the animal by breaking up its appearance as it hides in the grass of the savanna or in a forest dappled by moonlight.
8. The animal has a pointed face, small ears, an elongated body with a bulky rear half, and a long tail. Its head is generally held low.
9. The feet each have five claws. These are non-retractable, like a dog's claws.
The rescued animals in the video below may look friendly, but they are only semi-tame. They know the man in the video, who bottle-fed them when they were cubs.
10. An African civet has forty teeth—ten in each quadrant of its mouth.
11. Though the animal is classified in the order Carnivora, it follows an omnivorous diet. It eats fruit and other plant parts, carrion, and prey such as insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and their eggs, and rodents. It occasionally eats other animals, such as the young of bigger mammals.
12. It often pounces on its prey and shakes it in order to kill it.
13. The animals are good swimmers. If there is a suitable area of water in their habitat, they will catch and eat crabs and fish.
14. Like some other African mammals, African civets are said to eat the fruit of the Strychnos tree. Some sources say that they can withstand the strychnine in the fruit, but this may be due to confusion over the plant's identity.
15. Strychnos spinosa grows in the tropical regions of Africa. It's related to Strychnos nux-vomica, an Asian species. The seeds of the Asian tree contain strychnine, a deadly toxin. The seeds of the African species may or may not be toxic or may be toxic to only a limited degree. (If people decide to eat the fruit, they should make sure that they avoid the seeds due to their possible toxicity.)
16. The African civet is mainly nocturnal but is sometimes seen during the day, especially when the sky is cloudy. It generally becomes active shortly before sunset.
17. The civet is solitary for most of the year but meets other members of its species at times, especially during the mating season.
18. The animal produces several types of vocalizations, including growls, screams, and a sound that is described as a cough-spit. It sometimes emits a sound that is said to resemble "ha ha ha", apparently as a contact call.
19. Civets often deposit their dung in specific areas known as civetrines. These are located in clearings or beside trails. The dung isn't buried and is scent-marked by secretions from glands around the anus.
20. The dung is thought to mark a territorial boundary or to send a message to other civets during mating. A civet also scent-marks other items in its territory.
21. Males and females without cubs curl up on the ground in thick vegetation during the day in order to sleep. In captivity, the civets are often active during the day.
22. Females with cubs sleep in a nest created in a hole created by another animal, a space surrounded by tree roots, or a hollow tree.
Perineal Glands and Musk
23. African civets have perineal glands located near their anus. The glands release an oily and odoriferous secretion known as musk or civet.
24. The males release more musk than the females. The musk is used to transmit a message, as described above.
25. Unfortunately, humans have found a use for civet musk. Though its smell is unpleasant when it's released from the perineal glands, it's attractive when the musk is diluted. This has led to its use in the perfume industry.
26. The civet may also have scent glands in its neck. As can be seen in the two videos above, it often rubs its neck enthusiastically against items that it encounters.
The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classifies the civet in the Least Concern category of its Red List of Threatened Species. It says that the animal may be experiencing local declines due to hunting for fur and meat and capture for musk use, however.
Human Use of Civet Musk
27. Today civet musk is used primarily as a fixing agent for other scents in perfumes. The main chemical that gives the musk its odor and its pleasant scent when the secretion is highly diluted is civetone.
28. Artificial forms of civetone are now available, which appears to be helping the situation. Sadly, the natural product is still preferred by some commercial companies.
29. It's important to check the ingredients in perfume. The term "natural ingredients" on a product label may sound nice. Technically, a product containing civet musk or civetone can be called "natural", however.
30. The animals in civet farms (which are generally males) are typically kept in small cages not much bigger than their body. This enables their perineal glands to be easily reached and musk to be removed by scraping a gland, which is almost certainly a painful process. The inhumane treatment of the animals is of great concern to some people.
31. Though it's tempting to support the idea of making civet farms illegal, some people are trying a different approach due to the economic importance of the farms. They want to find ways to make the process more humane.
32. One researcher has made a potentially helpful discovery. If metal bars of a specific size are placed in a civet's enclosure, the animal will rub its perineal glands over them, depositing musk. The musk can then be collected. Other researchers have suggested harvesting musk from places where civets often deposit the secretion.
Some people may have heard of civet coffee made from partly-digested coffee cherries that have passed through the animal's digestive tract. In this case the animal involved is the Asian palm civet (Nandinia binotata), not the African civet. Obtaining the desired product typically involves cruelty, as in the palm civet's African relative.
33. In captivity, the female is reproductively mature at around the age of one. It's unknown whether this age is the same in the wild. Facts about reproduction have been discovered by observing captive animals.
34. The male reaches maturity two to three months before the female.
35. The females are polyestrous, which means they can have more than one litter in a year. A female may give birth to two to three litters in the same year.
36. Gestation lasts for sixty to seventy days.
37. A litter contains one to four cubs. The cubs have relatively mature features at birth compared to the young of many other mammals. They are completely furred, though they are mainly black in color. They are also able to crawl immediately after being born.
38. The female has six nipples.
39. The cubs feed entirely on their mother's milk for four to six weeks. They are fully weaned at around fourteen to sixteen weeks of age.
40. African civets can live for fifteen to twenty years in captivity. Some reports say they can live as long as twenty-eight years.
The animals in the two "civet cat" videos were discovered when a farmer was clearing some land. Their mother had disappeared, so they were rescued. They are drinking highly diluted porridge in the video above.
Questions That Need to Be Answered
Many facts about African civets need to be discovered or confirmed. For example, some sources say that the animals are good tree climbers while others say they are unable to climb trees. It's also said that the animals attack and eat venomous snakes without being harmed. It would be interesting to know the details about how the civet attacks the snake safely and whether this is a widespread practice.
Another problem is that some observations of wild civet behavior are quite old. That doesn't mean that they're wrong, but additional observations of the same behaviors would increase the likelihood that they are generally correct occurrences instead of only sometimes true. Learning more about the engaging African civet could be both useful and enjoyable.
- The African civet entry from EOL (Encyclopedia of Life), which is hosted by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History
- Civettictis civetta entry from the Red List of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
- Information about the African civet from Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology
Questions & Answers
How many different kinds of civets are there?
This question is hard to answer, for two reasons. First, scientists disagree about whether certain animals in the civet group should be classified as separate species or as subspecies of the same species. Secondly, people disagree about which animals should be referred to by the common name “civet”. The word appears in the common name of members of at least eleven genera at the moment. That would make at least sixteen species with the word “civet” in their name according to the current classification method.Helpful 5
How do you distinguish one African civet from another?
You would have to observe the animals that interest you and look at their coat pattern and color, their size, and perhaps their behavior. Careful observation would probably enable you to distinguish one animal from another.
Can African civets see in the dark?
The retina is the light-sensitive layer at the back of our eyeball. When cells in the retina are stimulated, they send a message to the brain along the optic nerve, enabling us to see. African civets are mammals, like us, and their eyes work in the same way as ours. Unlike us, however, African civets have a tapetum lucidum behind their retina. This reflects any light that reaches it back to the retina. This gives the retina a second chance to be stimulated and improves night vision. Since we don’t have a tapetum lucidum, the civet probably sees better at night than we do.
Are African Civets fast?
There is a lot that is unknown about the animals. In their daily life, they may not move fast. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) web page for the African civet says that two radio-tracked individuals "moved at an average speed of 326 m/h (metres/hour) and traveled between 1.33 and 4.24 km each night". I've never seen a reliable statement about the maximum speed of the species. I doubt whether it's known.
© 2018 Linda Crampton