The honey badger (Mellivora capensis), while remaining largely unstudied for many years, has enjoyed a boon of popularity in the past decade. Research conducted in the early 2000s has yielded several popular television specials and even an Internet meme about this unique mammal. Primarily found in temperate zones of Africa, the Middle East, and India, M. capensis has been the subject of many recent studies as researchers take note of its unique hunting and feeding habits (Begg, 2003, p. 301). Remarkably, there is still much that is unknown about this animal; most notably, the physiological mechanisms that allows M. capensis a seeming invincibility towards snake venom and other biotoxins remain a mystery (Begg, 2004). Due to this immunity and a rather tenacious nature, the honey badger was named “the most fearless animal in the world” in the 2002 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records (Cunningham, 2002). Furthermore, the South African National Defence Force has named their primary infantry fighting vehicle the Ratel, after the Afrikaans name for this species, as ratels are locally heralded to be ferocious fighters (Begg, 2004). While M. capensis clocks in at an average of twelve inches in length and twenty-five pounds in weight, this small, scrappy badger is truly a fascinating member of the Animal kingdom (Begg, 2003).
The honey badger was first documented in 1776 as the “Cape Ratel” in the first edition of Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber's Die Säugethiere in Abbildungen nach der Natur mit Beschreibungen (Wunschmann, 1891). Schreber's multi-volume set of books was the first of its kind, focusing on categorizing and naming the world's mammals, and it was here that the honey badger was classified under Carolus Linnaeus' binomial nomenclature system as Mellivora capensis (Wunschmann, 1891). Aside from the inclusion in the binomial nomenclature system, and a lithographic print depiction of the honey badger's physical characteristics, the scientific world largely ignored this species for the next two hundred years. Occasional notations of subspecies were made in 1836 and 1867 as variations on the badger discovered in Cape Town were documented in Nepal (Mellivora capensis inaurita, Hodgson, 1836) and Morocco (Mellivora capensis leuconota, Sclater, 1867) (Wozencraft, 2005). The early 1900s found a new interest in the honey badger as several more subspecies were documented between 1906 and 1923 in Turkemenia, Ethiopia, and Ghana (Wozencraft, 2005). However, extensive research on the habits and life of this genus did not begin until 1996, when research team Keith and Colleen Begg began to take a look at the South African subspecies.
Social, Hunting and Mating Habits
The honey badger has been noted as a primarily carnivorous mammal with a highly adaptive lifestyle (Begg, 2003). Almost exclusively solitary, sightings of M. capensis are rare as they are diurnal in non-populated areas and nocturnal in areas close to human population (Begg, 2003). Honey badgers begin their lives as a blind, naked, highly dependent cub after a six to eight week gestation period (actual gestation length is unknown at time of writing) (Hiller, 1999). There is no mating season, and mating pairs are polygynous (Hiller, 1999).
In spite of the solitary nature of this genus, mothers often care for their young for three to fourteen months, depending largely on the subspecies (Begg, 2003). While there is no male involvement in the parentage of honey badger cubs, the mothers give birth in a hole and maintain sole responsibility for the care and feeding of their cub (Begg, 2003). During the first two months of life, the cub remains in small holes of the mother's choosing (Begg, 2003). Every two to five days, the mother will dig a new hole and move her cub by carrying it to the new locale with her mouth (Hiller, 1999). It is thought that this practice is done to thwart predators. The cub's eyes do not open until approximately two months of age, at which time the cub begins moving on its own, albeit staying close to the mother's side until the approximate age of maturation for its subspecies (Begg, 2003). At two months of age, the cub sports a shorter, brighter version of the adult honey badger's coat, which is black with a large grey and/or white stripe down the back (Begg, 2003).
While able to leave the den at approximately two months of age, studies done in the Kalahari region of Africa show that juvenile honey badger cubs are still highly dependent on their mothers, needing extensive demonstration on digging and hunting techniques (Begg, 2004). Furthermore, there is a documented lack of physical dexterity in juveniles of this subspecies that makes vital aspects of the honey badger hunting technique difficult or impossible without a mother's help (Begg, 2003). Henceforth, it is assumed that the impressive dexterity displayed when a honey badger fights a large snake, or catches rodents in their networks of underground holes, is a learned behavior rather than an innate one.
Aside from snakes and small rodents, the diet of M. capensis is widely varied, with more than sixty species of prey at the time of this writing (Kruuk, 1983). They are generalist carnivores, eating everything from small crocodiles, to highly poisonous snakes, to insect larvae (Kruuk, 1983). They also scavenge food from larger carnivores. In spite of their popular name, honey badgers raid hives not for the honey contained within, but for the highly nutritious bee brood, or larvae (Kruuk, 1983). M. capensis will go to great lengths to obtain these larvae, receiving dozens of stings from the adult bees with seemingly no affect (Begg, 2004). As honey badgers have not been tracked or observed at water holes at this time, it is thought that they meet their water requirements primarily through food consumed (Begg, 2004). M. capensis obtains food primarily by using its acute sense of smell, and by digging (Begg, 2004). In this manner, the honey badger catches small rodents in their holes by digging approximately forty to fifty holes during a single hunting session (Hiller, 1999).
As the honey badger is dependent on digging for successful hunting and breeding, this genus is built for the task. They are small, squat, and very muscular, with the bulk of the musculature being found on the neck and front paws (Vanderhaar, 2003). Furthermore, the eyes and ears of M. capensis have evolved to be easily protected while hunting and/or fighting. The eyes are small and deep-set in a remarkably thick skull, and the ears are only notable during external observations as a slight ridge on either side of the head (Vanderhaar, 2003).
The honey badger has very loose, thick skin which is thought to be another adaptation to protect the animal during fights. While a predator can grab a large hunk of the honey badger's skin during a fight, the skin is loose enough that the badger can twist around and attack his predator (Vanderhaar, 2003). Furthermore, the honey badger's skin is very thick and tough, preventing damage from other animals' teeth and claws (Vanderhaar, 2003). At the end of each of its four short legs is a paw with five toes and very sturdy claws (Vanderhaar, 2003). The claws are typically very long on the forearms, and short on the hind limbs. M. capensis's body is covered with long, thick, course fur that is black with a distinctive broad white and grey stripe running from the forehead to the end of the tail (Vanderhaar, 2003). Of special note are the honey badgers' anal glands, which are deployed during an attack to stun and/or scare off predators with the foul-smelling secretions contained within (Vanderhaar, 2003). Additionally, it appears that M. capensis can use the anal secretions to stun bees prior to a hive attack. The honey badger deploys this technique to minimize personal damage while eating bee larvae. Several South African apiaries have reported finding dead and/or sluggish bees following a honey badger attack (Begg, 2003).
The honey badger has demonstrated a high level of tolerance for certain poisonous snake venoms that are extremely toxic and/or fatal for other mammalian species (Begg, 2004). The exact mechanisms for this tolerance are unknown at this time. Several researchers believe that the tolerance may be developed over time, as M. capensis is routinely exposed to small amounts of bee, snake, and scorpion venom while hunting and killing prey (Begg, 2004). This theory is also borne out by observations of mother honey badgers not allowing their cubs to fight or hunt snakes until the cub has gained the physical dexterity needed to avoid direct blows from the snake (Begg, 2004). However obtained, the tolerance of highly cytotoxic venom in adult M. capensis is remarkable. Researchers Keith and Colleen Begg recount a personal observation of one instance of the honey badger's seeming invincibility:
“One night we saw a young male collapse. He'd been struck in the face by a puff adder just before he bit its head off. We expected that he would die. But after two hours he woke up, groggily finished his meal, and later trotted off into the sunrise. We witnessed other encounters in which honey badgers appeared resistant to even the most potent venoms, though we don't yet understand the physiology that protects them.” (Begg, 2004)
The honey badger has an extensive range which extends through most of sub-Saharan Africa from the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, to southern Morocco and south western Algeria (Begg, 2003). Outside of Africa, M. capensis can be found throughout Arabia, Iran and western Asia to Turkmenistan and the Indian peninsula (Begg, 2003). Historically honey badgers are thought to be absent from the driest centre of the Sahara desert, the Mediterranean coast as far as the Nile Valley, and the Free State Province of South Africa (Begg, 2003). M. Capensis lives in a wide variety of habitats from the dense rain forests of Zaire to the arid deserts on the outskirts of the Sahara and pro-Namib, from sea level to the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia (Begg, 2003). In India the honey badger is mostly found in the semi arid areas of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh (Begg, 2003).
While M. capensis has a well-earned reputation for being scrappy and tough, it is far from invincible. In spite of its unique abilities to successfully fight larger animals and overcome the effects of cytotoxic venoms, several factors provide a threat to the honey badger. Leopards and lions frequently prey on these animals, and there have been documented cases of honey badgers being stung to death by bees (despite an atypical resistance to beestings) (Begg, 2003). The biggest natural threat to M. capensis is predation on cubs, with only forty-seven percent of cubs reaching independence in one study (Begg, 2003). Several species of jackals are thought to be the chief predators of the cubs, along with less common instances of infanticide by adult male honey badgers (Begg, 2003).
As with most animals, humans also are a significant threat to the honey badger. Due to human encroachment on the honey badger's large space requirement, as well as the high cub mortality rate, they have been placed on the South African Red Data List as “Near Threatened (Begg, 2003).” In several countries, the honey badger is protected by local law: it is illegal to capture or kill this animal in South Africa, Morocco, Niger, Saudi Arabia, and India (Begg, 2003). Outside of protected areas M. capensis is also actively persecuted by small livestock farmers as the animals are the most destructive predators of both honeybees and poultry (Begg, 2003). Furthermore, M. capensis are killed for traditional medicine in some cultures, and their pelts appear for sale in traditional markets in South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe (Begg, 2003). As the honey badger is a secretive and elusive animal, it is hard to gain data on population decline but sightings have decreased significantly across the animal's habitat range.
The dearth of research surrounding the honey badger is quite remarkable when one considers the public fascination with the animal. Aside from numerous mentions in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most fearless animal,” M. capensis has been the subject of numerous National Geographic videos and has even spawned a popular internet meme (“The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg). Prior to the television and internet attention, the honey badger was a subject in the national press as Iraqi officials publicly accused the British Armed Forces of releasing “Basra Badgers” into the war-torn city of Basra as an intimidation tactic. While researchers have speculated that the increased sightings of honey badgers in the Basra area was instead due to flooding of the animal's traditional habitat outside of the city, several accusations led UK military spokesman Major Mike Shearer to proclaim, "We can categorically state that we have not released man-eating badgers into the area (BBC, 2007).”
Other than the Iraqi war, honey badgers' tenacity during fighting has caught the attention of other national defense systems as well. The chief Infantry Fighting Vehicle of the South African National Defence Force is the Ratel, named after the Afrikaans word for this animal (Living Library, 2006). The honey badger is also the subject of much local lore in the countries of its habitat, even inspiring a well-used South African colloquialism, “So taai soos a ratel,” meaning, “as tough as a Honey Badger (Living Library, 2006).” But folkstories of M. capensis's ability to attack and kill much larger animals than itself are perhaps the most amusing. According to South African folklore (and backed up by some circumstantial evidence), the honey badger goes for the scrotum when it attacks large animals (including buffalo, wildebeests, waterbucks, kudu, and men) that offer real or imagined provocation. In Kruger Park, South Africa, adult male buffalo, gnu and waterbuck have been found dead from loss of blood after honey badgers were witnessed attacking them in the scrotum (Living Library, 2006). Folklore such as these stories have cemented the honey badger's place of honor in the popular culture of several regions.
Capitalizing on the public fascination relating to M. capensis, this animal would be an ideal addition to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study Kindergarten Science Unit, “Pets, Farm Animals, Zoo Animals - Similarities and Differences.” While the six week unit draws attention to animals of all types, the many unique characteristics of the honey badger would be an excellent example of a zoo animal, or an animal from a geographic region far from the students' own. Several lessons could be incorporated into this unit, starting with a descriptive reading about the honey badger and perhaps a short video viewing of one of the National Geographic mini-documentaries about this species. Students could then make verbal note of the physical characteristics of this animal in a small or large group setting, then chart similarities and differences between the honey badger and other animals (or humans) (NCSCOS Objective 1.01, “Observe and describe the similarities and differences between animals” and 1.05 “Observe the similarities of animals to humans”). Furthermore, the unique ways that M. capensis interacts with its environment (extensive digging, surviving without surface drinking water, and unique hunting abilities) would provide an interest-piquing starting point for a discussion of how animals thrive in all types of climates (NCSCOS Objective 1.02, “Observe how animals interact with their surroundings”).
It is hoped that this popular interest in this intelligent and unique mammal will yield even more research and knowledge about the honey badger. The tenacity, strength, and resourcefulness of M. capensis is admirable and it is easy to see why this animal in particular has captured the fascination of humans around the globe.
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