Kinkajous: Flower powered

To meet a kinkajou, simply find a balsa flower and wait. Roland Kays hangs out with the ‘honey bear’ – the arboreal acrobat that needs its daily fix of sugar.

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Kinkajou article spread

To meet a kinkajou, simply find a balsa flower and wait. Roland Kays hangs out with the ‘honey bear’ – the arboreal acrobat that needs its daily fix of sugar.

 
It all started the night I stood under a balsa tree in central Panama, struggling to get a good look at the animals running around in the branches above me. If it wasn’t for them, I would never have become a tropical biologist.
 
Occasionally I glimpsed the mysterious arboreal acrobats through gaps in the leaves, but I was having trouble co-ordinating my spotlight and binoculars on such agile targets. Finally, one of the critters stayed still long enough for me to catch it both in my beam and in focus.
 
It was a kinkajou, feeding from a large white balsa flower. A few slurps of the sugary nectar with its long tongue, a brief pause to peer down at its terrestrial admirer, then it was on the move again.
 
Sweetness and height
 
I saw kinkajous in three more balsa trees on that heady night as I worked my way along Pipeline Road, which cuts through the rainforest of the wonderful Soberanía National Park near the Panama Canal.
 
I went to bed late with a sore neck from looking up so much, but captivated by my first brief sightings of these bright-eyed, honey-coloured creatures.
 
I was excited that I could spot so many canopy-dwelling mammals during a night drive. Scientists need a good sample size to test hypotheses – finding enough animals is often a problem for mammal studies.
 
I was also amazed by the kinkajous’ nonchalant reaction – once spotlighted, they just carried on feeding from the spectacular balsa blooms.
 
Wildlife gold
 
I had struck gold: here was a wild animal that was abundant and tame, yet practically unstudied in its nocturnal canopy niche. When I started my PhD later that year I read everything I could about kinkajous (mostly the anecdotal observations of early naturalists). Their unusual ecology and behaviour fascinated me.
 
Kinkajous live much like monkeys, but belong to the raccoon family Procyonidae so have a totally different ancestry. I realised that they offered an excellent opportunity to compare the evolution of sociality in different groups of animals, and returned to Panama as soon as I could to carry out a detailed study of this little-known species.
 
My trip was timed to coincide with the two-month flowering season of the balsa tree – a favourite food of ‘kinks’ – and during my first night back on Pipeline Road I spotted a mother and baby within minutes. They accepted my company immediately.
 
Take the bait
 
A few days later I used a pulley system to haul a baited trap into the tree they were frequenting. Before long, I had caught both of them.
 
I named the pup Lotus. She was too small to wear a radio-tracking collar like the one I gave her mother, Lily. Instead, I clipped her right ear to leave a small V so that I could at least identify her by sight.
 
As I began to follow Lily and Lotus on their nightly patrols in search of flowers and fruit, I gained a unique insight into their secret lives 30–35m above the forest floor.
 
I came to the conclusion that wild kinkajous are extraordinarily tame because they have so little to fear. They are too big for owls to catch, go to bed before it is light enough for eagles to fly and are safely out of reach of jaguars.
 
Kinks are also seldom hunted. So they seem to view humans as nothing more than benevolent (albeit noisy) ground-dwelling creatures that have an inexplicable tendency to shine bright lights in their eyes.
 
Picnics and slumber parties
 
My studies of Lily, Lotus and other tagged individuals have thrown up a paradox: kinkajous are social yet solitary. They live in groups, but (apart from lactating mothers) spend most of the night travelling alone.
 
Visiting small fruiting or blossoming trees on their own means that they face less competition for food. However, they often gather at larger trees – especially figs – to socialise, groom and frolic with the pups. It’s a kind of treetop picnic.
 
Kinks also meet up before dawn at favourite sleeping sites, such as a hollow tree trunk or the top of a palm tree. Typically, two or three animals will spend the day together in these refuges, but I once counted five leaving the same hole at dusk – that must have been quite a slumber party.
 
Kinkajous vs monkeys
 
This flexible social system is linked to the low predation risk, and it is helpful to compare it to that of spider and capuchin monkeys. During the day the monkeys travel between the same trees, eating the same diet as the kinkajous, but do so in groups.
 
They need strength in numbers to spot predators, especially eagles, but each individual gets less fruit at any given tree because it has to share the crop with its group. By contrast, kinkajous enjoy the best of both worlds: exclusive access to the fruit of small trees, and socialising at larger ones where there is enough food for everyone.
 
Fumble in the jungle
 
When following kinkajous I always try to collect any of their scat that has fallen to the ground (or, sometimes, onto my head). To find the former, I have to get down on my hands and knees and rummage through the leaf litter, praying that I don’t accidentally grab a snake or tarantula. It is worth it for the chance to confirm what they have been eating.
 
Kinkajou scat must be the least offensive bodily waste in the animal kingdom. It is composed almost entirely of fruit and seeds that look as if they have received only a light chewing. I sometimes wonder if kinks, with their rapid digestive system, ever manage to extract any nutrition from their meals.
 
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