Wondernose: What animal has black and white stripes, uses a smelly liquid for defense, and has a name that rhymes with gorilla?

by Rebecca Martin | Feb 1, 2024 | 0 comments

I know, Wondernose. You were just opening your mouth to say “skunk” when I added that last part about rhyming with gorilla. Our mystery animal is a little more exotic than the common skunk. In fact, it’s found only in Africa. It’s fairly common there, however.

Our mystery animal is a carnivore, meaning its food is the flesh of other animals, usually ones that are smaller than itself. A nighttime hunter, our animal has a small stomach and needs to eat frequently.

For such a small animal, this creature has few enemies. The reason is obvious. Who wants his face full of a foul-smelling liquid that can quickly blind the eyes? Even lions are wary of our mystery animal. To begin with, the black and white markings are a distinct warning sign. Anything that doesn’t heed that will receive another warning in the form of a tail held aloft. But if the predator still persists—he’ll be sorry.

One scientist tells the story of how an entire group of lions was once prevented from eating a zebra they’d killed. Our little mystery animal came along and claimed the carcass as its own meal. All the fellow had to do was lift its tail every now and then. While the drooling lions looked on, our mystery animal took the occasional nibble.

Wondernose, you’re wondering just how small this animal is, since I keep calling it little. Well, the body is 12-16 inches (30-40 cm) long, and the tail may be nearly that long again. The markings on its fur are really pretty. About four white stripes run down the back. The tail is mostly white, peppered with black. Should you happen to stare one of these animals in the face, you will see three white splotches distributed evenly across its features. For some reason, the animal usually hunches its back as it trots along on short legs.

The claws are a notable feature of our mystery animal. They are long and strong, excellent for digging. Not only is this animal an expert in digging its own burrow, but it can also enlarge with lightning speed the smaller burrows of its prey. A mouse cowering at the bottom of its hole is doomed once our mystery animal goes to work with those excavator claws.

You’d like me to give hints about the animal’s name, Wondernose. I already have. I said it rhymes with gorilla. So all you have to do is decide what letter replaces that “g.” No, this isn’t a borilla. Nor is it a porilla. Try something from the end of the alphabet. Right! Zorilla. There are different spellings, by the way. Some people call it the zorille.

And there are many other common names for it. Often the zorilla is called the African polecat. This is an apt name, as it certainly resembles the American polecat in habits. True, our polecats aren’t black and white; usually they’re mottled reddish-brown. But their means of defense is similar to the zorilla (and skunk). Polecats, on the whole, are more nearly like weasels.

South America also has mustelids that resemble zorillas. One variety is known as the tayra. Tayras are about 2 feet (60 cm) long and mostly black except for white in the head and neck. Unlike the zorilla, the tayra spends a lot of time climbing in trees. Fruits, berries, and birds’ eggs are favorite foods. Another interesting mustelid of South America is called the quique. It has a broad white line running across the face and on either side of the neck.

Getting back to the African species, I could mention a few weasels that resemble the zorilla. One, called the Libyan striped weasel, lives in northern Africa. Another is the white-naped weasel, found more in the southern part of the continent.

Concerning the zorilla, Wondernose, I have one last question for you. Why do you think it is sometimes called a “mouse-hound”?

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