The Kinkajou

The kinkajou, (Potos flavus), also known as the “Honey Bear” or “Night Walker” in Belize, is a furry, long-tailed mammal that lives in the lowland rain forests of Southern Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. They are arboreal (living in or among trees) and stay in the forest canopy, seldom descending to the forest floor. They are found in a variety of habitats, from mature tropical forests to heavily disturbed and secondary forests. Kinkajous are extremely agile and fast, traveling quickly along the tree tops, jumping noisily from tree to tree. As nocturnal (most active at night) creatures, the kinkajou sleeps during the day in tree hollows or leaves to avoid all contact with sunlight. They are in the same family as raccoons (Procyonidae), and have a similar role in rainforest ecosystems that raccoons do in temperate forest ecosystems.

Closely related to the raccoon, the kinkajou is a small, furry, long-tailed mammal that lives in the lowland rain forests of Southern Mexico, Central America and parts of South America. They live among the forest canopy and seldom descending to the forest floor. Kinkajous are extremely agile and fast, traveling quickly along the tree tops, jumping noisily from tree to tree.
This small animal has short, soft honey gold or brown fur, a round head, small round ears and a cat like face with very prominent eyes. The kinkajou has a fully prehensile (adapted for seizing, grasping or holding) tail that is used as support when climbing or resting. To aid in climbing, they can rotate their feet backwards so that they can hang from tree branches. The toes are joined by a membrane that extends a third of the way down each toe and each forepaw has five digits. Kinkajous have large scent glands on their throats and sides of their jaws, which are hairless. The length of the head and body is 16 to 22 inches, with the tail being the same length. They weigh between 4 to 10 pounds.

Although kinkajous are evolutionarily derived from meat-eating ancestors, they are primarily omnivorous, eating both animal and vegetable food. Although 90% of their diet consists of fruit, they do consume invertebrates, small mammals, eggs, leaves, honey and nectar. They use their incredibly long tongues (around six inches long) to collect nectar and to get honey from bee hives. When collecting nectar the kinkajou turns upside down, on its side or on its back so not to lose any of the fruit juice. While doing this the creature also collects pollen on its face, making them the only carnivore that is also an important pollinator. They also use their clawed hands to pluck and eat fruit and in the dry season of Belize they often eat flowers for their nectar.

A major method of communication between kinkajous is by scent. Kinkajous have scent glands near the mouth, on the throat, and on the belly. Making sounds (grunting and growling) is another way these animals communicate. They have a variety of vocalizations, from chatters to screams, and a “kissing” noise made when happy or interested. They also vocalize using small “peeps” for close communication and a shrill scream for far away communication The Kinkajou is a solitary animal, avoiding contact with other kinkajous unless mating. Each kinkajou has its own territory that it marked with its scent. They socialize only to mate and after a gestation of 112 to 118 days the female gives birth to one (sometimes two) cubs, this usually takes place from April to December. The cub is born in a dark den with their eyes and ears closed. Their eyes open within two to six weeks, and in another three to six weeks their tails become prehensile. The kinkajou mother is very protective of her cub. During times of danger she will carry the infant upside down just below her chest. The mother carries the young for almost four months, at which time the young are almost independent.

Kinkajous play an important part in their environment. As pollinators and seed dispersers, they are considered a “keystone” rainforest species since they are necessary to the survival of the ecosystem they reside in. Their predators include diurnal birds of prey, which take sleeping kinkajous from tree tops, foxes, tayras, jaguarundi, jaguar, ocelot, margay, and people, who hunt them for their meat and fur. Kinkajou numbers are falling rapidly as a result of deforestation and habitat loss.

Kinkajous are sometimes kept as pets. Their personality tends to be playful and curious, and they are generally tame. However, some owners report unpredictable, vicious attacks by their kinkajous even after several years of non-aggression. In 2005, kinkajous were made popular as pets by celebrities such as Paris Hilton, who named hers “Baby Luv”.

Not often seen in the wild due to its nocturnal habits, the kinkajou is a ball of energy when it wants to be – sort of an amped up racoon – curious, intelligent and all too familiar with people when domesticated.

Also known as a honeybear and as Potos flavusto the scientifically minded, the kinkajou abounds in Belize’s forests, where the little omnivore dines mostly on fruits that they hold with their forepaws while using long slender tongues to scoop out the pulp. It is estimated that fruit makes up some 90% of their diet, with various leaves, flowers, herbs and insects providing the rest. As dedicated frugivores, kinkajous play an important role in dispersing seeds throughout Belize and also act as pollinators. Frugivore is just another way of saying “fruit eater”.

So, in another example of Mother Nature’s elegant sense of balance, as kinkajous busily stuff themselves with fruits and other plants, they are also contributing to the spread and survival of various plants species and ensuring that the rainforests maintain their rich diversity.

Kinkajou specs:

An adult kinkajou weighs between 3 and 10 pounds, or about one and a half to almost five kilograms, and ranges from 16 to 24 inches (or 40 to 60 cm) in length, with a tail about the same length.

They have a lovely woolly fur coat of gold or greyish brown with a grey undercoat, and large, slightly protruding eyes, small ears and short legs with five toes and claws on each foot. There’s no doubt that they are cute as can be, which makes them attractive as pets – until their new owners find that they are better at disrupting a household and overturning pantries than any gang of teenagers.

While the Natural History Centre generally advises against keeping wild animals as pets, kinkajous are domesticated throughout Central and parts of South America, where they are known as the micoleón, or “lion monkey” and are gaining popularity as exotic pets in the USA. They are for the most part friendly and playful, but can get aggressive with those sharp teeth and claws if rubbed the wrong way. Like certain blog writers we know, they hate being disturbed while sleeping or woken up early…

In the wild they’re very social critters, sleeping and grooming in groups after foraging on their own. They breed all year long, and have one or two babies after a gestation period of about 115 days. They’ve been known to live an average of about 23 years in captivity, with a maximum recorded life span of 41 years.

Kinkajous enjoy an unfettered life within Chaa Creek’s 365 acre private nature reserve that they share with an enormous variety of flora and fauna, including howler and spider monkeys, coatis, cats such as jaguarundis, ocelots and the rarely seen but occasionally heard jaguar, tapirs and other animals as well as some 308 recorded bird species. It’s a good life, with plenty to eat, no hunting allowed and the occasional appreciative camera toting guest.

Next time you’re out on a “Creatures of the Night” excursion pay close attention to your guide – if you’re lucky you may catch a pair of big shiny eyes in the flashlight’s beam and see one of these furtive, fun loving animals for yourself.

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