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What In The World Is A Kinkajou?

It's a carnivore, though it mostly eats fruit. It has a prehensile tail, but it's not a primate

A kinkajou in Costa Rica (courtesy of flickr user Luca5)

Its name means “honey bear,” but it’s not a bear. It’s a carnivore, though it mostly eats fruit. It has a prehensile tail, but it’s not a primate.

The kinkajou is awash in contradictions. But what is it?

This mammal is a procyonid, a member of a group of small animals with long tails that includes raccoons. Kinkajous can be found in tropical forests from southern Mexico to Brazil. They fill the same ecological niche as the New World monkeys they sort-of resemble, but unlike the monkeys, they’re nocturnal and they don’t use their tails for grabbing food. The kinkajou’s tail helps it to balance as it reaches for food–it’ll grab a branch with its tail as it reaches. And if it falls and catches itself with its tail, the kinkajou can twist itself in such a way that it can climb back up its own tail.

Like other members of the procyonid family, kinkajous aren’t too big, only about 16 to 22 inches in body length, and about double that if you add in the tail. Wild cats such as jaguars, ocelots and margays will prey on kinkajous, but kinkajous have a hidden talent that helps them escape: They can rotate their feet so that they can run backwards just as fast they run forwards. They also have sharp hearing that lets them detect quiet predators like snakes.

Kinkajous have long tongues that they use to slurp up the insides of fruit, nectar from flowers and honey from beehives (that’s where the name “honey bear” derives). They’re not complete vegetarians, though, and have been known to eat insects, eggs and even small vertebrates.

These are mostly solitary animals (though a few have been seen playing, grooming and sleeping in small groups), and the females raise their young alone. She’ll give birth to usually one baby in a tree hollow. And those babies grow up pretty fast—by the age of two weeks, the little kinkajou will be eating solid food, and it’ll be hanging by its own tail by seven weeks. It’ll reach maturity after 18 to 20 months. In a zoo, it might live as long as 40 years.

Kinkajous aren’t endangered, but their numbers are thought to be decreasing. Their forest habitat is being disturbed and destroyed in many places. They’ve been hunted for their meat and their pelts. And they’ve been captured for the pet trade, though, due to their painful bite and propensity for nocturnal mayhem (just think what they’d do to your home while you sleep), kinkajous, as with all wild animals, make for lousy, dangerous pets.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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