While out on game drive recently, I saw a genet eating something on the ground, and on closer inspection is was a flower, or at least what looked like a flower.
This behaviour was new to me, and triggered me to do some research into their diet.
Genets are mainly carnivorous and are adapted to a semi-arboreal lifestyle, but I’ve also often seen them chasing bushveld gerbils and other small rodents at night and climbing trees in search of roosting birds.
Little is actually known about their ecology and their role as primary and secondary consumers. This is partly due to our focus on the larger mammals – namely the big five – as this is what most guests are interested in when coming to visit us at Londolozi. The smaller nocturnal predators run the risk of being overlooked, even though they play a vital role in the maintenance of a healthy and functioning ecosystem.
So, back to genets themselves…
Genets are small, spotted carnivores with wide faces and bushy stripped tails. Within Southern Africa there are two main species: the South African large-spotted genet and the small-spotted genet.
There is very little obvious difference between them when seen on game drive, so the easiest way to differentiate the two is by looking at the tip of their tail. This is black in the tip of the large-spotted genet species and white in the small-spotted genet species.
Genets are thought to have evolved more slowly than any other carnivores and still show the most primitive skeletal features of the order Carnivora.
For example, they have a longer jaw and a greater number of upper molars than their close relative, felids, which are the cats like leopards and lions. Interestingly enough there are many parallels between these two groups when it comes to their vocal repertoires. Both genets and cats hiss and ‘spit’. They also make ‘churring’ and ‘yapping’ noises in stressful situations.
Their role in ecosystem maintenance is an important one, as the majority of their diet consists of rodents and other small mammals. Their hunting skill and necessary dexterity of these mammals in action it is pretty incredible. They also consume large quantities of insects and fruits, the latter making them effective for seed dispersal, and it’s the latter again which got my attention.
Do they have a sweet tooth?
Recent research in the Western Cape by Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen et al focused on monitoring the interaction of carnivorous mammals with flowers, particularly proteas. Her team recorded around 30 species of flowers being pollinated by small, ground dwelling mammals. “But the spotted genets were something of a surprise and accounted for 7% of all recorded visits to the flowers and appeared very keen on the nectar”, said Steenhuisen.
“The genets dove right into the blooms which contain over 30% sugar by weight. Pollen had been seen on their snouts after they drank, which supports the theory that they play a larger role in pollinating plants than previously thought.”
As previously mentioned genets are mainly meat eaters but Steenhuisen thinks they may visit the flowers for a “sugar kick”.
“These unrelated mammals all have different diets, so its a puzzle as to what kind of common attractive signal is being emitted”.
A study done in 2012 in Zurich found that most meat eaters can’t actually taste sugars, bearing mutated genes that would be responsible for a sweet tooth. One possibility may be the fact that flowers emit a fermented odour similar to that of sour milk or cheese which would be more likely to entice genets in, as opposed to a sweet sugary smell.
This could possibly be the reason why I saw the genet eating a flower – maybe the flowers have just evolved to fool the genets into thinking they’re getting something a little more meaty…