Honey Badger Facts

Scientific Name: Mellivora capensis

Honey badger or ratel
Honey badger or ratel.

Moments_by_Mullineux, Getty Images

Both the common and scientific names for the honey badger (Mellivora capensis) refer to the animal's love of honey. However, it's not actually a badger. Honey badgers are more closely related to weasels. The other common name for the honey badger is the ratel, which refers to the rattling sound the creature makes when it's agitated.

Fast Facts: Honey Badger

  • Scientific Name: Mellivora capensis
  • Common Names: Honey badger, ratel
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 22-30 inches a 4-12 inch tail
  • Weight: 11-35 pounds
  • Lifespan: 24 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Africa, southwestern Asia, India
  • Population: Decreasing
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Description

A honey badger has a long, thick-set body, flat head, short legs, and short muzzle. The body is well-adapted to fighting, with small eyes, small ear ridges, clawed feet, and irregular teeth. Honey badgers have a special anal gland that ejects a strong-smelling liquid used to mark territory, deter predators, and possibly calm bees.

Most honey badgers are black with a white band running from the top of the head to the base of the tail. However, one subspecies is completely black.

Honey badgers are the largest weasels (mustelids) in Africa. They average 22 to 30 inches in length with 4 to 12 inch tails. Females are smaller than males. Males weigh between 20 and 35 pounds, while females weigh from 11 to 22 pounds.

Habitat and Distribution

The honey badger's range includes sub-Saharan Africa, western Asia, and India. It occurs from the tip of South Africa to southern Algeria and Morocco, Iran, Arabia, Asia to Turkmenistan, and India. Honey badgers are adapted to habitats ranging from sea level into the mountains. They prefer deciduous forests and grasslands.

Honey badger distribution.
Honey badger distribution. Craig Pemberton, Creative Commons License

Diet

Like other members of the weasel family, honey badgers are primarily carnivores. They are solitary hunters, except during the breeding season, when they may hunt in pairs. Usually, honey badgers forage during the day, but they will hunt at night near human habitation. While they favor honey, the hunt insects, frogs, birds and their eggs, small mammals, and small reptiles. They also eat carrion, fruits, and vegetables.

Behavior

Honey badgers have few natural predators. Their size, strength, and ferocity drive away much larger predators, including lions and leopards. Their skin is largely impenetrable to teeth, stingers, and quills. It's loose enough to allow the animal to twist around and bite its attacker if caught.

Honey badgers are also extremely intelligent. They have been observed using tools to escape traps and access prey.

Reproduction and Offspring

Very little is known about honey badger reproduction. They typically breed in May and give birth to two cubs after about six months gestation. The cubs are born blind in the honey badger's burrow. Both males and females dig burrows using their powerful front claws, although the animals sometime take dens made by warthogs or aardvarks.

The honey badger's lifespan in the wild is unknown. In captivity, they have been known to live 24 years.

Honey badger carrying her pup.
Honey badger carrying her pup. Derek Keats, Creative Commons License

Conservation Status

The IUCN classifies the honey badger's conservation status as "least concern," but the animals are rare throughout their range and the population size is decreasing. Honey badgers are protected throughout portions of their range, but have gone extinct in other areas from poisoning programs.

Threats

Humans pose the most significant threat to honey badgers. They are hunted for bushmeat and used in traditional medicine, but most animals are killed by apiculturists and livestock farmers. They are also killed by control programs intended to target other species. A 2002 study found bee hive damage may be eliminated simply by placing hives a meter off the ground, potentially reducing the conflict with apiculturists.

Honey Badgers and Humans

Honey badgers are not aggressive unless provoked, but there have been cases of attacks on children. There are documented cases of honey badgers digging up and feeding upon human corpses. The animals are reservoirs of some diseases that can affect people, including rabies.

Sources

  • Do Linh San, E., Begg, C., Begg, K. & Abramov, A.V. "Mellivora capensis". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN: e.T41629A4521010. 2016. doi:
  • Gray, J.E. "Revision of the genera and species of Mustelidae contained in the British Museum". Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London: 100–154, 1865. doi:
  • Kingdon, Jonathan. East African mammals, Volume 3 : An Atlas of Evolution in Africa. University of Chicago Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0-226-43721-7.
  • Vanderhaar, Jane M.; Hwang, Yeen Ten. "Mellivora capensis." Mammalian Species (721): 1–8, 2003.
  • Wozencraft, W.C. "Order Carnivora". In Wilson, D.E.; Reeder, D.M (eds.). Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (3rd ed.). Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 612, 2005. ISBN 978-0-8018-8221-0.