Though rarely seen, in the dense forest of Southeast Asia lives a tree-dwelling mammal with distinctive characteristics and an important role as a keystone species among the regions rain forests.
Described as having a cat like face, a bear like walk and furry coat – it is even sometimes known as a “bearcat.” However, this creature is not a bear or a cat and despite being classified as a carnivore it’s primary diet is fruit, most notably figs.
With coarse and wiry black fur, long, white whiskers, a body 2 – 3 feet in length with a tail of nearly equal length. It is the largest member of the Viverridae family and it is known for boasting a rather familiar odor. It is the animal known as the Binturong.
Rare over its entire Asian range, the Binturong is most common in Malaysian Borneo, parts of Northeast India and Bangladesh. Binturongs have also been less frequently spotted in parts of Nepal, South China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
The meaning of the word “binturong” is unknown because the local language that created the word is now extinct.
Binturong fur ranges in color from mostly black to brown with lighter white or silver tips. With long ear tufts and reddish-brown eyes, Binturongs are often thought to be either cute or menacing in appearance.
Binturongs are mostly solitary and normally avoid each other, but they are not strictly territorial. They are typically slow-moving and spend most of their time in trees. Padded paws and long claws help them grasp branches and they are able to rotate their ankles backwards which allow them to climb head first down a tree.
They spend the majority of their time climbing, but also have a high level of ground activity as they are too large to jump from tree to tree. Binturongs have also been seen swimming and diving in order to obtain food.
To aid in movement among the tree tops, Binturong are only one of two carnivores to possess a prehensile tail – the other is the small mammal, Kinkajou. The Binturong’s long flexible tail aids in balance as it climbs and a leathery patch at the tip of the tail helps them grip branches.
Even when sleeping they may be observed with the tail wrapped around a branch. Some young Binturongs have been seen hanging from branches using only their tails, adults are too big and must use also use their paws tosupport their weight.
With a weight of nearly 50 pounds, female Binturongs are about 20% larger than males and are the dominant sex in among the species. Both sexes possess scent glands at the base of their tail which are used to mark territory and for identification. The smell produced by Binturongs is often described as similar to buttered popcorn or corn chips.
Binturongs have no specific mating season and they are one of the few mammals that experience delayed implantation, meaning that the fertilized egg only partially develops after fertilization. This allows the female to give birth during ideal times of the year throughout their native range.
They are often considered nocturnal, but Binturongs have good vision both day and night and can be found active at any time of the day.
Though Binturongs are classified as carnivores and they will sometimes eat small animals such as insects, birds, fish, rodents and eggs, they are primarily frugivores, with fruits making up most of their diet. In fact, Binturong’s serve a very important role in their native habitat as a major consumer of the strangler fig.
The tree of the strangler fig make up a critical portion of the rainforest canopy in many parts of Southeast Asia. Many plants and animals rely on these large trees. However, the seed of the strangler fig has a thick coating. While other animals eat around the seed, some destroy the seed by fully consuming it, and some pass the seed through their systems with the thick coating unscathed.
However, the binturong is able to eat nutritious fruit, and the seed’s protective coating is removed by the binturong’s digestive tract as the seed passes through its system allowing the deposited seed to germinate. This method of seed dispersal is critical to helping maintain the rainforest ecosystem.
A smaller subspecies, known as the Palawan Binturong is found on the Palawan Island in the Philipines. This slightly smaller Binturong only grows to about 40 pounds and both species are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
The only zoo with a breeding pair of Palawan Binturongs is the Nashville Zoo. As an accredited members of the Associaton of Zoos and Aquariums and a participant in the Binturong Species Survival Program, the Nashville Zoo became home to the first two Palawan Binturongs in the United States in 2015. To date, 19 Palawan binturongs have been born at Nashville Zoo.
An unique Old World family of birds found in tropical and subtropical Africa, Asia and Melanesia are known as Hornbills.
A distinctive feature of the Hornbill family is the casque that appears on the upper mandible. This exact purpose of this hollow structure is unkown but most researchers believe it is used as a resonating chamber to amplify calls or, in the case of some hornbill species, as a battering ram in aerial jousts with other males.
Their scientific name of classification “Bucerotidae” – refers to that distinctive bill; buceros is Greek for “cow horn”.
The first two vertebrae of Hornbills are fused to support the weight of the large, heavy bill and casque.
Hornbills are well known as one of the signature bird groups in Asian tropical forests. Amont the many species found in Southern Asia and parts of Indonesia is the Wreathed Hornbill.
Wreathed Hornbills are large birds with a height of 30 to 36 inches, males being even larger than females. The birds are black with a long, white tail often stained yellow with preen gland oil. The females have a black head and males have a rufous crown and nape, with a white face and neck. The casque is common to both males and females of this large Asian species. They also appear to have eyelashes, which are modified feathers found growing just above the bare skin found around their eyes.
Wreathed Hornbills get their name from the wreaths, or ridges, found around the base of their bill. The Javanese name for the species means ‘year bird’, because of the ridges on the beak, however the hornbill does not form a new ridge every year. In fact, more than one ridge may form in a year and some of the front ridges may even drop off. Up to nine ridges have been counted, but the birds may live twenty years or more.
Wreathed hornbills also have a conspicuous inflatable pouch on the throat with a dark band or stripe, due to this marking they are sometimes known as Bar-pouched Hornbills. All Wreathed Hornbills are born with a blue colored pouch but as the mature, the male Wreathed Hornbill’s pouch turns a bright yellow color. This same yellow coloration is also found on males of another closely related species – the Plain-Pouched Hornbill – which looks very similar to the Wreathed species though it lacks the dark banding on the throat pouch.
Although hornbills are omnivorous, their main diet is fruits – so they are often considered frugivores. Research has found that fruits are an important source of all nutrients, especially fat, in the bird’s diet.
Hornbills are able to store many fruits per feeding in the esophagus and stomach, and then regurgitate their seeds as they move, making hornbills significant seed dispersers in their native habitats. The birds also consume animals such as insects, amphibians, and small mammals.
Wreathed hornbills don’t typically drink water from a ground source as they are very arboreal and are rarely seen going to the ground. They get their water from either their food, like the figs they eat in the wild, or from the leaves when it rains.
Wreathed Hornbill has long, broad wings that make a loud ‘whooshing’ sound when flying. They often travel in flocks of up to 20 individuals. Feeding, roosting, and bathing sites are communal, and roosting sites may have up to 400 individuals.
Hornbills are known for their peculiar nesting behavior. Like many birds, Wreathed Hornbills will pair-bond for life. The breeding season is variable across their range but generally being spring and summer.
About a week before egg-laying, the pair will find a tree cavity, preferably high on the trunk of an emergent tree, and the female will walled inside by the male using sticks and mud. An opening is left so that the male can deliver food to the female and later the chick as well. Nest cavities may be reused year after year. During incubation, the female will completely molt and regrow her feathers, and is dependent upon the male for food.
Up to 3 eggs are laid in the nest cavity, hatching about a week after the female enters the nest. The male will continue to provide food to the female and chicks up to 4 months. When chicks are ready to fledge, the female breaks out of the cavity. Usually only one chick survives.
Though dependent on these tree cavities, Hornbills are unable to excavate their own nest cavities, as do woodpeckers. But wood-decaying fungi play key roles in development of cavities in trees which are used by the Wreathed Hornbills for their nests.
The current population of Wreathed Hornbills is considered in decline. Pressures from habitat loss and fragmentation through illegal logging and hunting are the biggest threats to all hornbill species. The species has been hunted for its meat, the feathers for ceremonial purposes, and the casque on top of their bill. Recently, the Wreathed Hornbill native population has been listed as Vulnerable.
The world’s largest tree-dwelling mammal is a popular and well-recognized primate – the Great Ape known as the Orangutan.
Females stand up to 3 and a half feet tall and weigh near 100 pounds, while Male Orangutans stand up to 5 feet tall and weigh nearly 200 pounds.
Their skin is dark gray but they are covered in long, thin reddish-orange hair. Both male and females have bare faces, but they often exhibit a beard or mustache.
Orangutans have very long arms, usually twice as long as their body while their legs are shorter, usually half as long as their arms. They use their long and powerful arms to move quickly among the tree tops of their native rain forest habitats. Orangutan feet are adapted for climbing trees and grasping objects, giving them extra support that allows them to hang upside down with ease.
The hips of orangutans are highly mobile. They have full rotation of their joints, allowing their legs to move at almost any angle. This agility allows them to even place a foot in their mouth while hanging from a branch.
Orangutans were historically found across mainland Asia from northern India, to southern China, Vietnam, the Malay peninsula, and Java. They are the only great apes currently found natively outside the continent of Africa. Today, Orangutan are found exclusively in Sumatra and Borneo. They are usually found in forests, swamps and mountain foothills that are close to water sources like streams and rivers.
Most orangutan taxonomists now view Bornean and Sumatran orangutans as two distinct species, while the Bornean Orangutans are futher divided into 3 distinct subspecies.
Marked by the signature facial flanges – or cheek pads – found on male Orangutans – Bornean male facial flanges curve forward, while the cheek pads on the Sumatran species lie flat. The throat sac of Borneans are larger and they tend to have a darker coloration in both the face and their hair. Bornean orangutans have tend to have shorter, less dense hair while Sumatran orangutans have a longer, more wooly coat.
A recent study indicates there is a third species of orangutan, the Tapanuli Orangutan, which is genetically isolated from Sumatran and Bornean species and morphologically distinct. Discovered in 1997 but only recognized as a distinct species since 2017, this species is considered to be the rarest great ape on Earth. As few as 800 exists today.
Orangutans spend most of their day foraging and eating. Orangutans have powerful jaws capable of cracking, crushing, and chewing fibrous foods such as fruit with spiny coverings, nuts, and tree bark – though the Sumatran species tend to eat less tree bark than their Bornean cousins.
Orangutans will also eat insects and honey and sometimes they are observed eating soil in wild habitats. These great apes are sometimes known as “gardeners of the forest” as seed dispersers.
In addition to eating, Orangutans will carry large objects in their mouths while keeping their hands and feet free for traveling through the tree tops. They will often remain high in the trees for weeks without coming to the ground.
While foraging and eating during the day, Orangutans sleep at night in nests that they construct high in the trees, often more than 60 feet in the air. They will usually move to a new spot every night.
Once believed to be solitary animals, it is now believed that larger breeding males remain mostly solitary while females and young are more social. Orangutan populations in managed care are usually seen to be more social than those observed in the wild – this is believed to be due to the limited resources found in the native habitats.
Where resources are more plentiful, wild orangutans often congregate in groups to forage – though males a typically more intolerant of one another. Confrontations often result in displays such as staring, inflating their throat pouches, shaking tree branches and by producing long call vocalizations. These low, rumbling calls of male orangutans can travel more than a mile away in the forest.
Orangutans are highly intelligent creatures who are often observed using tools for gathering food, using leaves like sponges to gather water or remove things from their hair. They may use large leaves for shelter from rain or sun and some have even been known to make gloves from leaves to protect their hands when handling thorny plants and fruits. An orangutan named Fu Manchu – who once lived at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium even fashioned a lock pick from some wire to exit his night enclosure and gain access to one of his favorite trees.
While most great apes are classified in the Hominidae family which also includes humans, some researchers believe that the Orangutan is too different morphologically and behaviorally from humans to include it in Hominidae family, and instead use Pongidae – the term once used for all great apes.
Orangutans may live more than 40 years. Aside from human activity, young orangutans are preyed on by clouded leopards, crocodiles, and pythons. Currently Orangutans are listed as a Critically Endangered species. Because orangutans live in only a few places, and they are so dependent upon trees, they are particularly susceptible to logging and deforestation.
One of the main causes of habitat loss and fragmentation in the orangutan’s native ranges is the conversion of rainforest habitats to palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that is commonly found in many consumer products – in fact, it is estimated to be found in one in ten products available in supermarkets today.
Consumers can make orangutan friendly choices when shopping by making use of the popular sustainable palm oil mobile shopping guide app produced by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. The app allows you to to check if the product you are about to purchase is “orangutan friendly” and RSPO certified simply by scanning the barcode, you can select alternative products, and even contact companies to thank them for their commitment to certified sustainable palm oil. Just one important step to help keep the Orangutan from extinction.
Special thanks to the following organizations for their education, research and conservation programs that provided information for this episode:
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
Cheyenne Mountain Zoo & App
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
San Diego Zoo Global
SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Animal Guide
For original wildlife artwork and more amazing animal facts visit: