The sweet smell of … stink badgers?

Ah, the sweet smell of success. It has taken many hours of research, writing, re-writing and finally a bit of webmastery to wrap it all up, but finally I have completed my task. Ladies and gentleman, please clap your hands – over your noses – as I present to you those unloved cousins of Meles meles, the stink badgers!

In case you are wondering (and I would hope that your curiosity has now been piqued), there are two species of stink badger, they both live on islands in south-east Asia, and I have now finished a major update of the section of my Badger Pages website which is devoted to them. I have added lots more information and even a few new photos, including this image of a Palawan stink badger (Mydaus marchei) which was kindly contributed by Katharina Haldimann:

As you might have guessed, the stink badgers do whiff a bit. More than a bit in fact – the anal gland secretions of the Indonesian species can apparently asphyxiate dogs, so stink badgers certainly live up to the first part of their name. But what about the second bit? I said that the stink badgers are cousins of Meles meles, the Eurasian badger, but just how closely, or otherwise, are they related?

The stink badgers have had a presence on my Badger Pages website from its very early days (the late 1990s to be precise). Back then, they were widely regarded as fully-fledged members of the badger club or, to get technical for a moment, the sub-family Melinae – that branch of the weasel family to which the true badgers belong.

Over the years however, scientists have been accumulating evidence which casts doubt on the stink badgers’ claim to Melinae membership. To be sure, they have a number of features in common with the other badgers, for example their forpaws are armed with long claws which are used to dig dens, and they root in the ground for worms and grubs. At the end of day though you really can’t argue with a DNA test. And the DNA evidence shows that the stink badgers are actually imposters – skunks in Brock’s clothing to be precise. Which would explain the smell.

A number of 19th century scientists, if they were alive today, would not be at all surprised by the recent re-classification of the stink badgers as skunks. French zoologist Anselme Desmarest, for example, recognised the skunk-like nature of the beast in 1820 when he gave the Indonesian stink badger the Latin name Mephitis javanensis (Mephitis being Latin for stench, and a name still used today for the striped and hooded skunks of North America).

In 1821 another Frenchman, Georges Cuvier, gave Desmarest’s newly-described animal its own generic name, Mydaus. Although this separated the stink badger from the skunks, the name selected by Cuvier suggests that he knew where the animal’s affinities lay. Explaining the choice of Mydaus, he wrote “Nom tiré du grec, et qui signifie puant.” Or, roughly translated: “The name is taken from the Greek, and means stinking.”

And so science has come full circle, with most zoologists now accepting that Desmarest pretty much got it right back in 1820. That leaves the stink badgers as badgers in name only. For me though the name, and the other similarities these distantly related diggers share with the true badgers, are enough for me to retain an interest in them and to keep them in my Badger Pages. Besides, these animals have few friends and have been largely overlooked by zoologists, which is a shame as they are fascinating creatures worthy of closer study. In fact, you might say they are not be sniffed at!

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