Have you ever visited a zoo and seen monkeys swinging back and forth hanging from their tails? Not many mammals have this ability of “prehensile” tails—the ability to wrap tails around a branch for support of their bodies. In fact, besides the kinkajou, only one other carnivore has this ability—the binturong of southeast Asia.
The kinkajou or “honey bear’ as some folks call them, is a member of the raccoon family, Procyonidae, as also are raccoons, ringtails and coatis. Overall, they are most similar in structure to ringtails, although they are genetically distinct. Similarities with ringtails are thought to have come about by slow parallel changes of natural selection in similar habitat and environment. They belong to the genus Potos; Potos flavus is their scientific name. They are the only species within the genus and there are eight subspecies.
The fur of the kinkajou is thick and woolly and the tail long and prehensile. The rear half of feet soles are furred, digits are united by webbing for 1/3 of their length and their tongue is long and narrow. Pelage (fur) varies mostly in shades of brown and gold over gray and there is often marked color variation even within close geographic family groups. Weight is from 2.5 to 3.7 kg.
Kinkajous range from in Mexico, through Central America to Bolivia, east of the Andes and in forests of southeastern Brazil. They are normally found at altitudes from sea level to 2500 m. Their preferred altitude is from sea level to 2500 m. Preferred habitat vegetation are closed canopy tropical forests closed, including lowland rainforest, montane forest, dry forest, gallery forest and secondary forestlands.
Kinkajous are tropical non-hibernating omnivores eating both vegetation and animals. They may be described as primarily frugivores (fruit-eating). They particularly like figs and extract the inner pulp of fruits with their long tongues. They are important seed dispersal agents in dispersing several fruit varieties as seeds are ingested with the fruit pulp and pass through their digestive tracts unharmed.
Kinkajous are strictly nocturnal and arboreal, rarely coming to the ground. Kinkajous are not tolerant of heat and normally remain out of direct sunlight. They most often sleep in obscure retreats in shaded tangles of leaves and in tree hollows during the daytime, so sightings are rare. Kinkajous are considered solitary (loners) though sometimes may be seen in pairs. However, they are may be found in feeding and sleeping groups of three or more.
Kinkajous employ a wide variety of vocalizations (sounds) from barks to shrill screams, whistles, grunts, hisses, chirps and clicking sounds.
Male kinkajous become sexually mature in 1.5 years, females in 2.25 years. They breed throughout the year, giving birth to one or occasionally two small young after a gestation period of 98 to 120 days. They live from 20 to 40 years in captivity, less in nature.
A nocturnal animal, the kinkajou’s peak activity is usually between about 7:00 PM and midnight, and again an hour before dawn. During daylight hours, kinkajous sleep in tree hollows or in shaded tangles of leaves, avoiding direct sunlight. They do not hibernate.
In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras pet kinkajous are commonly called micoleón, meaning “lion monkey”. Kinkajous are sometimes kept as exotic pets. They are playful, generally quiet, docile, and have little odor. However, they can occasionally be aggressive. Kinkajous dislike sudden movements, noise, and being awake during the day. An agitated kinkajou may emit a scream and attack, usually clawing its victim and sometimes biting deeply. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that pet kinkajous in the United States can be carriers of the roundworm Baylisascaris procyonis, which is capable of causing severe morbidity and even death in the owner, if infected (Wikipedia).
Eisenberg, J. F. 1989. Mammals of the Neotropics. Vol. 1, The Northern Neotropics. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Ford, L. S. and R. S. Hoffmann. 1988. Potos flavus. Mammalian Species, No. 321. American Society of Mammalogists.