Ictonyx striatusstriped polecat

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Geographic Range

Striped polecats are found throughout the African continent. They are distributed in all habitats occurring between the Mauritanian coast and the coast of Sudan, and southward to the South African coast. (Ansell, 1960; Bere, 1962; Happold, 1987; Smithers, 1986)

Habitat

Striped polecats inhabit a wide variety of habitats. Although they are most commonly found in African savannas and semi-arid environments, they can also be found anywhere from the coastal sand dunes of the Namib desert, to the big rainfall areas of the District of Zimbabwe, which has forests, high mountains, and even swamps. (Ansell, 1960; Bere, 1962; Happold, 1987; Smithers, 1986)

Physical Description

Striped polecats closely resemble the North American skunk. These small carnivores have glossy, coarse black fur with distinctive white spots on the face. There is a spot on the forehead and one on each cheek, and the black ears have white tips. Four broad white stripes extend down the body from the top of the head to the tip of the tail.

The body length can vary between 28 and 30 cm, not including the tail, which can add an extra 20 to 30 cm to the total length. Males are usually larger than females, weighing in at about 1.4 kg with females down at about 1.02 kg.

These polecats have long sharp claws on the forepaws, which are mainly adapted for digging, but are also useful when climbing trees. The teeth are shorter than the teeth of weasels (another close relative of the polecat), and the cutting edges of the sheering teeth are less developed. (Kingdom, 1977; Meester, 1971)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male larger
  • Average mass
    1.02-1.4 kg
    lb
  • Average mass
    910 g
    32.07 oz
    AnAge
  • Average length
    28-30 cm
    in

Reproduction

The mating system of this species is unknown. These animals are solitary in the wild. Male encounters are always aggressive. Males and females only tolerate one another only during the mating season.

Because males are larger than females and are aggressive toward one another, it is likely that there is some competition between them for mates. Species in which males are larger than females generally display some level of polygyny.

Zorillas are generally intollerant of one another except during the mating season, when males and females can interact without aggression. Studies of captive animals indicate that the breeding season is from early spring to late summer. All litters were born between September and December. Females generally produced only one litter in a season, but if all of her babies died young, a female could produce another litter before the end of the breeding season. (Nowak, 1999)

The mother usually gives birth to a litter ranging from 1 to 4 young. The young are born in burrows during the mid-summer months after a 6 week gestation period.Weighing in at 15 g, a newborn is blind and hairless with pink skin. Short fur begins to cover their body at 21 days after birth. The canine teeth don't grow out until day 32, and they don't open their eyes until they are between 35 and 42 days old. Although zorillas can kill their own prey at 9 weeks of age, they aren't completely weaned until they are 18 weeks old. Sexual maturity is reached between the 20th and 30th week, although some females in captivity have given birth at an age of 10 weeks. (Kingdom, 1977; Meester, 1971)

  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs in early spring through late summer.
  • Range number of offspring
    1 to 4
  • Average number of offspring
    2
    AnAge
  • Average gestation period
    36 days
  • Average gestation period
    36 days
    AnAge
  • Average weaning age
    18 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    10 to 30 weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    10 to 30 weeks

Parental care in this species has not been described in the literature. However, because of the solitary nature of the species, it is reasonable to assume that the male is not involved in rearing the young. Females give birth to their young in burrows. Young are altricial, and therefore require extensive care until they are able to survive on their own. Females nurse young until they are about 18 weeks old. (Nowak, 1999)

Lifespan/Longevity

The lifespan of wild zorillas has not been reported. However, one captive specimen reportedly lived for 13 years and 4 months. (Nowak, 1999)

Behavior

Zorillas are almost strictly nocturnal, but some have been seen foraging around dusk and dawn. They seem to lead fairly nomadic lives. These mustelids are solitary creatures that sleep in hollow trees and rock crevices. They may also dig burrows or cover themselves with twigs and leaves when other suitable sleeping places are not present.

Although polecats are efficient swimmers and climbers, they prefer the terrestrial life. When foraging, a zorilla will walk or run with its backs held in a firm arch and its tail in the vertical position with the tip bent down. This loping gate is something like that of a mongoose.

Very little is known about the social life of wild zorillas, and they appear to be mainly solitary. In captivity, but several families have been kept together and grooming appears to be common among them. Some will roll over and present their dark undersides for grooming. Even though large numbers are seldom encountered together in the wild, their captive behavior suggests that they may not be highly territorial. (Kingdom ,1977; Meester, 1971)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Striped polecats are carnivores. They eat a wide variety of small rodents, including rats, mice, and spring hares. They also eat frogs, lizards, snakes, birds, bird eggs, and beetles. They avoid eating vegetable matter.

Polecats are particularly prevalent on rangelands, where the grazing behavior of wild herbivores and domestic livestock tends to keep the grass short. This allows striped polecats to feed on beetles, their larvae, and mice. Where there is an abundance of dung and fodder for beetles and mice to eat, striped polecats flourish because of the abundance of prey (Delany, 1979; Kingdom, 1977)

  • Animal Foods
  • mammals
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • eggs
  • insects

Predation

Specific reports of predation on this species are absent in the literature. However, striped polecats are reportedly pestered by domestic dogs. They may also occasionally be considered as prey items by larger African carnivores.

Striped polecats have a variety of behaviors and physical features which may be evolutionary responses to predation. A polecat will make frequent stops or reversals in direction while moving about. These changes in direction are instantaneous. This might give the impression that they posses quick reflexes, and may deter predators. It is likely that such changes in direction will also avert attack from any predator, especially avian predators, which may be closing in on the polecat.

When bothered by another animal, most commonly dogs, a striped polecat will growl and bark and fluff up its tail. If this does not drive the attacker away, the growling rises to a high pitched scream. The polecat will turn around and present its attacker with a squirt from its well-developed anal glands. (Like the skunks found in North America, striped polecats can spray a large amount of powerfully odorous secretions from their anal glands.) If the odor does not deter the assailant, a polecat may feign death. Anal gland secretions, which linger on the fur of a polecat, may then serve to further deter predators because they have a terrible taste. A predator that tries to bite a polecat may decide that the polecat will make a terrible-tasting meal and subsequently release it.

These beasts commonly feign death when actually attacked. It is dificult to speculate on how that may aid them in detering a predator, as it would seem to make them easier to consume. However, this may allow the predator to get a good taste of their anal gland secretions and allow them the convenience to decide to release the zorilla uneaten.

(Nowak, 1999; Kingdom, 1977; Meester, 1971)

Ecosystem Roles

This predator controls populations of small rodents, especially in agricultural areas, where rodents feed on crops and dung of farm animals.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Striped polecats are very common on big sheep farms and ranches of the Kenyan highlands. They perform an extremely important role in the pastures by keeping down the number of beetle larvae that feed on roots and grasses. Farmers like polecats because they also eat a large proportion of the field rats and mice which ruin crops. (Kingdom, 1977; Meester, 1971)

Striped polecats may be kept as pets if the anal glands are removed to keep down objectionable odors. Interestingly, there is at least one report of native peoples using the anal gland secretions of these animals as a perfume (Kingdom, 1977). (One must wonder whether this was because the people liked the way the polecats smelled, or if wearing polecat scent might be a way to cloak their own human odors from other animals, preventing those animals from detecting human presence — a useful hunting strategy.)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Polecats around farms will prey on small livestock like rabbits, chickens, and chicken eggs.

  • Negative Impacts
  • crop pest

Conservation Status

Zorillas have no special conservation status.

Other Comments

Although striped polecats are not endangered or threatened, the majority of the ones killed are by motor vehicles. Several members of the family are often killed by cars because none of the other ones will leave the scene once one has been hit. Unlike hares and antelope that meet the same fate, dead polecats do not seem to attract scavengers and will remain longer on the roads.

(Kingdom 1977)

Contributors

William Aguilar (author), Humboldt State University, Brian Arbogast (editor), Humboldt State University.

Glossary

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

swamp

a wetland area that may be permanently or intermittently covered in water, often dominated by woody vegetation.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

Ansell, W. 1960. Mammals of Northern Rhodesia. Northern Rhodesia: The Government Printer Lusaka.

Bere, R. 1962. Wild Mammals of Uganda: And neighboring regions of East Africa. Bungay, Suffolk: Longmans, Green and Co. LTD.

Delany, M., D. Happold. 1979. Ecology of African mammals. New York: Longman, INC.

Happold, D. 1987. The Mammals of Nigeria. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Kingdom, J. 1977. East African Mammals: An atlas of evolution in Africa Vol.III part A (carnivores). London, New York: Academic Press INC.

Meester, J., H. Setzer. 1971. Mammals of Africa, an identification manual. City of Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press.

Smithers, R. 1986. Land mammals of Southern Africa. Johannesburg: Macmillan South Africa LTD.

Wilson, V. 1975. Mammals of the Wankie National Park, Rhodesia. Salisbury, Rhodesia: Trustees of the National Museums and Monuments of Rhodesia.