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The small-spotted genet

24 January 2017



The genets developed from a common ancestor with the civets in Africa some 8.5 million years ago, and fossils are known from Morocco. As do the civets, palm civets, linsangs and the binburong, the genets are part of the family Viverridae. This family name has its origins in an Old English derivation of the Latin name furo for a ferret which is a type of polecat, and it means thief. It may refer to the propensity of members of this group of animals to raid poultry. Genets are some of the oldest known carnivores in the world. The name genet is of Middle-English origin and is derived from the Old-French name genete which in turn is probably a Catalan, Portugese or Spanish name that was derived from the Arab name jarnait.

Genets were originally regarded as types of civet by Linnaeus in 1758 and were originally described as Viverra genetta based on a specimen of a small-spotted genet Genetta genetta from Spain. However, a new genus Genetta was created in 1816 by Cuvier when he realized that genets were not civets. The name Genetta is of uncertain origin but it could be a combination of the Greek prefix gen for a bear and the New Latin word etta which means small, in other words a small bear-like animal. The small-spotted genet is one of 14 or 15 species of genet and was introduced from Africa to south-western Europe 1000 to 1500 years ago.

Three of the species of Genetta occur in South Africa, with the common large-spotted genet Genetta maculata only marginally occurring in the northern parts of South Africa and further north into Africa. Due to its wide, but interrupted distribution in Africa, Arabia and south-western Europe, there are five subspecies of the small-spotted genet. The subspecies Genetta genetta felina occurs in southern Africa, but some authors regard it as a separate species of genet Genetta felina. It was originally described as a type of civet Viverra felina in 1811 by Thunberg based on a specimen from the Cape of Good Hope.

A small-spotted genet has short legs and an elongated body with a long tail that has about eight white rings. The body is covered with small spots which are usually black, but the spots can also have a rust-coloured fringe or even be totally rust-coloured. The back-ground colour varies from pure white in die more arid, western regions to buff or off-white in the eastern wetter regions, but no two specimens are exactly alike. Two black bands stretch from near the inner edges of the ears over the front of the shoulders, with two more black bands from the back of the neck to the flanks. The most obvious differences from the large-spotted genet is that a small-spotted genet has a dorsal crest and a jet black band from behind the shoulders to the base of the tail. There also are white patches under the eyes and the tail has a broad white tip. The underparts are white to off-white, and there is a dense, greyish underfur.

The muzzle is pointed and the erect ears are rounded. The genders look alike but the males are slightly larger than the females, reaching a mean total length of 949 mm as opposed to 925 mm in the females. However, both genders have a mean weight of 1.9 kg. The front legs are usually darker than the hind ones. There are five toes of which one is set back from the rest, with sharp claws that can be extended on each forefoot. There is a pair of large scent glands behind the sex organs as well as anal glands that secrete a musky substance that is used in scent-marking.

The small-spotted genet occurs in three geographically isolated populations in southern and northern Africa and in a wide belt across the Sahel south of the Sahara desert. It was introduced to south-western Europe where it now occurs in Spain, Portugal, France, and parts of Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland Belgium and the Balearic islands of Spain. It also occurs in the southern Arabian Peninsula and Israel.

The habitat consists of open, arid woodlands, dry grasslands or wetlands in regions where the large-spotted genet Genetta tigrina does not occur. Cover in the form of scrub or underbrush is essential, as are rocky outcrops or holes in the ground or in trees in which to shelter. The rainfall of the habitat can range from 100 to 800 mm per year, with the small-spotted genet being replaced by the large-spotted genet in regions which receive more than 800 mm of rain per year. They may overlap in occurrence in the Waterberg.

In habits, the small-spotted genet is almost entirely solitary, although pairs may sometimes be seen. It is strictly nocturnal as it only becomes active after dark and enters cover before sunrise. Although it can climb well, the small-spotted genet spends most of it´s time on the ground and uses disused burrows of the springhare and aardvark for shelter. However, it uses thick foliage for shelter where there are no suitable burrows. In the southern Kalahari it uses holes in the calcareous cliffs of the fringes of pans. The burrows are not altered in any way as the claws are not adapted to dig. Roads, tracks and dry stream beds are used when travelling on the ground at a fast trot, but when stalking prey the movements are slow and deliberate before the prey is killed in a final rush and pounce.

The diet consists predominantly of insects, mice, spiders, scorpions, birds and reptiles such as small lizards, but frogs and centipedes are eaten at times too. Carrion may also be eaten, and small-spotted genets can learn to raid poultry on farms, while wild fruits may be eaten occasionally. The largest known mammal that was eaten was a domestic rat Rattus rattus, while the largest known bird eaten was a Cape turtle dove Streptopelia capicola. Nevertheless, a small-spotted genet is capable of handling larger prey such as a small hare and a young guineafowl. A kill typically involves a careful stalk, followed by a short rush ending in a pounce. The prey are secured with the claws of the forefeet and are bitten repeatedly on any convenient part without any obvious preferred method. The hind legs are also used to rake the abdomen of a prey animal. Most of the prey is eaten entirely, and the small-spotted genet is independent of water.

The young are born during the warmer, summer months after a gestation period of ten to 11 weeks. The litters are born in disused springhare and aardvark burrows, holes in termite mounds, hollow trees, among piles of boulders and in other suitable cavities. The birth cavities are not lined with bedding and the litter size may vary from two to four young. At birth a young small-spotted genet weighs some 70 g, and weaning occurs at an age of nine weeks when young genets become fully active. A female has four inguinal mammae.



Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pages 417 - 420.

Wozencraft, W L 2005. Order Carnivora. In D E Wilson & D M Reeder (Eds) 2005. Mammal species of the world: a taxonomic and geographic reference, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, pages 554 - 559.

article by Prof J du P Bothma



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