Monotypic Species - The Honey Badger

The honey badger (Mellivora capensis) is also called the ratel. It is native to Africa, the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East, and, despite its name, has more anatomical similarities to the weasel than to badgers. It is the only member of the genus Mellivora and belongs to a select (but large) group of animals which are the only species of their respective genera. The pronghorn, African painted dog, numbat and okapi are others.

Although there is only one species, there are at least 12 subspecies. These differ mostly in size and the amount of white or grey on the back.

In 2011, a video showing a honey badger achieved over 20 million views. The footage shows a honey badger tackling jackals, cobras and beehives. The line from the video that the honey badger 'doesn't give a shit' has been taken up in other formats. The Guinness Book of Records as documented the honey badger as the 'most fearless animal in the world. They retaliate fiercely when attacked but are not invincible with numbers of adults being killed annually by lions and leopards.

Range of Honey BadgerCredit: Wikimedia

The honey badger is found through most of sub-Saharan Africa, southern Morocco, south-western Algeria through Arabia, Iran and western Asia and the Indian peninsula. It is found from sea level to an altitude of 4,000 metres above sea level in the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia.

It is found in many different habitats and has a wide tolerance to habitat variations from semi-desert to rainforest.

The honey badger has a fairly long body, measuring 68 to 75 cm in length. They stand 23 to 28cm at the shoulder with males being slightly larger than females. Males weigh around 12 to 16 kg. Females have two pairs of teats. There is an anal pouch which is reversible, similar to that of the hyena. The suffocating smell of the pouch may help in calming bees hives are being raided for honey.

The honey badger is thickset and broad across the back with a very loose skin, enabling it to twist and turn without hindrance. Around the neck, the skin is 6mm thick giving good protection. The skull is very solidly constructed and the head is small and flat with a short muzzle. The eyes are small and the ears just raised ridges on the skull, another adaptation to avoid injury when involved in altercations with others. For a carnivore, the canine teeth are very short. The tongue is covered with sharp, backward-pointing papillae.

The short sturdy legs have five toes on each foot. The very strong claws are short on the hind legs but up to 40mm long on the forelegs. The soles of the paws are thickly padded and devoid of hair. The animal has a distinctive, quite rapid but bow-legged jog-trot. The short tail is covered with long hair apart from below the base.

In winter the fur on the lower back is 40 to 50 mm long. The hairs are sparse, coarse and bristle-like with no undercoat. The flanks, belly and groin have even less hair with the belly being half bare. The sides of the head and the lower body are jet black but a large grey/white mantle runs from the top of the head to the base of the tail. There may be a white stripe separating the wide mantle and the black lower parts. The white stripe often becomes darker with age. One subspecies M.c.cottoni is completely black.

The skin is almost impervious to arrows and spears and will resist several blows with a machete. Dogs find it hard to get a grip on the thick, loose skin. The only safe grip is on the back of the neck.

Honey badgers generally hunt alone. They are very efficient diggers and dig holes to live in which consist of a tunnel 1 to 3 metres in length with a nesting chamber at the end. They don't take in nesting material and sometimes take over disused holes of other animals.

The intelligent honey badger is capable of using simple tools. They are absolutely fearless and, if they can't escape, they are savage in their fighting and so tireless that they wear down much larger animals.

The honey badger is not a fussy eater. Where there is a high density of human population, they become nocturnal hunters, otherwise they hunt when they're hungry. They are primarily carnivorous eating small rodents, birds, eggs, carrion, snakes, lizards, tortoises and frogs. Bigger prey such as antelope, polecats, jackals and wild cats are also taken.

There is some evidence to suggest that the Greater Honeyguide (bird) guides the honey badger to bee-hives. The bird certainly guides humans to hives and, once the hive is open and the honey removed, the birds feed on wax and the remaining larvae.

Honey BadgerCredit: en:User:Jaganath

Honey badgers locate their prey with an acute sense of smell and dig out many of their victims, excavating up to 50 holes in a single foraging period. They commonly dig out gerbils and ground squirrels. They climb easily and well. They also eat berries, roots and bulbs. They will tackle and eat venomous cobras, adders and black mambas. They hold their food with their front feet and eat skin, feathers, flesh and bones. In the southern Kalahari, over 60 species of prey have been recorded.

Not a lot is known about the reproduction of the honey badger. In depth information is only available from the southern Kalahari region. There, a six to eight week gestation seems typical and it is thought that in some areas, some females may exhibit delayed implantation. One cub is usual with occasionally two being born. The male has nothing to do with the cubs. Cubs are born naked and blind and are often moved every two to five days by the mothers. The eyes open after two months and at three months the cubs will begin to follow the mother on short forages. The mantle of the cub is usually very white.

Cubs stay with the mother for at least 14 months. Digging, climbing, dealing with venomous snakes all require a high degree of co-ordination, technique and skill and these things must be learnt from the mother. A son may be far larger than his mother and a twosome out hunting are more likely to be a mother and cub rather than a 'pair'.

Males have extremely large home ranges, sometimes in excess of 500 square kilometres. This may overlap with other males and encompass the ranges of twelve or more females. Captive honey badgers live for around 24 years but lifespan in the wild may be considerably less.

The honey badger has few natural predators due to the ferocious defence it displays in the face of would-be enemies. It also has a very thick skin.

It is directly persecuted by bee-keepers, poultry and sheep producers. Badgers can become serious poultry killers, ripping planks from hen-houses and burrowing under stone foundations. Once in the hen-house, they will kill most if not all of the occupants.

Indiscriminate poisoning and trapping for jackals and caracals results in some deaths. There is also trade for traditional medicine and in Zambia the honey badger is eaten as bush meat. Its predators are lions and leopards.

It is sometimes classed as the most fearless animal in the world, thanks to a YouTube video which went viral showing the honey badger standing up to a range of vastly bigger predators.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the honey badger as 'of least concern' due to its extensive range and its adaptability to its environment.