Masked palm civet
|Masked Palm Civet|
| Paguma larvata|
|Masked palm civet range|
The masked palm civet or gem-faced civet (Paguma larvata) is a civet species native to the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. It is classified by IUCN in 2008 as Least Concern as it occurs in many protected areas, is tolerant to some degree of habitat modification, and widely distributed with presumed large populations that are unlikely to be declining.
In recent times, masked palm civets were considered to be a likely vector of SARS.
In morphology the masked palm civet resembles other civets. Unlike most civets though, its orange-brown to gray fur completely lacks spots, stripes, and other patterns besides a mask.
That mask consists of a prominent white stripe stretching from nose to forehead (sometimes extends farther but has greatly reduced thickness) that halves a black mask that extends laterally to the far edges of the cheeks and caudally up the forehead, past the ears, and down the back of the neck before stopping just under the shoulder blades. The eyes are surrounded by white fur that can vary from faint, incomplete outlines to well-defined blotches. The lips, chin, and throat are white. In some, white stripes of fur, comparable to sideburns on humans due to shape and location, curve up from the throat. These curves vary in thickness and have ends that terminate either in small blotches at the ear base or large blotches that surround the base of both darkly furred ears.
No matter which coat it sports, masked palm civet's feet are always dark, often black, and the melanism usually extends partway up the legs in varying distances and intensities depending on the individual. The end of a masked palm civet's tail is sometimes darker than the majority of its coat. This difference in pigmentation can vary from a few shades darker than its coat to solid black and can cover a fourth to half of the tail.
The main body varies from 51 to 76 cm (20 to 28 in) in length, to which is added a tail of 51 to 63 cm (20 to 25 in). It weighs between 3.6 and 6 kg (8 and 13.2 lb).
Distribution and Habitat
Masked palm civet are distributed from the northern parts of the Indian Subcontinent, especially the Himalayas, ranging eastwards all the way across Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Peninsular Malaysia, China, Thailand and to Vietnam. They are also found on Borneo, Sumatra, Taiwan, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands. They have been recorded in both evergreen and deciduous forest, and in disturbed habitat.
It is unclear whether they are a native to the Japanese islands or were introduced by humans.
Ecology and behaviour
When alarmed, the animal sprays a secretion from its anal gland against the predator. The spray is similar in function to that of a skunk, and its conspicuousness serves to deter other predators.
Feeding and diet
The masked palm civet is an omnivore feeding on rats and birds as well as on fruit such as figs, mangoes, bananas, and leaves. Scat analysis indicates that they also eat mollusks, arthropods, bark and to a lesser extent snakes and frogs. The composition of the diet varies between seasons and sites.
There are two breeding seasons per year. The female bears up to four young. Masked palm civets are known to reach 15 years of age in captivity.
During the Qing Dynasty the masked palm civet was hunted and eaten as game. According to a Qing dynasty author, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, the Manchu Han Imperial Feast contained a dish of "steamed masked palm civet tossed with pear slices" (梨片伴蒸果子狸). In the Qing Dynasty manual of gastronomy, the Suiyuan Shidan, fresh masked palm civet was said to be hard to find, with most recipes using the dry-cured version of the animal. It was prepared in a manner similar to Chinese ham.
The masked palm civet is still hunted as game in many parts of the world.
The major threats for the masked palm civet are continued habitat destruction and hunting for bushmeat. However, it can also live in fragmented forest habitats, albeit at reduced density, and its semi-arboreal lifestyle makes it less vulnerable to hunting than ground-dwelling carnivores.
Paguma larvata is protected in Malaysia and Thailand. The population of India is listed on CITES Appendix III. In Hong Kong, it is a protected species under the Wild Animals Protection Ordinance, Cap. 170, and can be spotted in its urban parks.
Connection with SARS
In parts of China masked palm civets are hunted for their meat and eaten. Inadequate preparation of the meat may have been the cause for the outbreak of SARS. In May 2003, the SARS virus was isolated in several masked palm civets found in a live-animal market in Guangdong, China. Evidence of virus infection was also detected in other animals including a raccoon dog, and in humans working at the same market.
In 2006, scientists from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention of the University of Hong Kong and the Guangzhou Centre for Disease Control and Prevention established a direct genetic link between the SARS coronavirus appearing in civets and humans, bearing out claims that the disease had jumped across species.
A later study revealed that the sequences of many SARS genomes show that the civets' cases of SARS were just one part of the family tree of SARS viruses in humans — probably humans got SARS from bats, then humans gave it to pigs once and to small civets once, and then these small carnivores may have given the disease back to humans once or twice. All the cases of SARS associated with the outbreak appeared to be part of the bat branch of the coronavirus phylogeny.
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