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When you think of a wild carnivore, you might imagine a lion felling a wildebeest, but let us introduce you to the kinkajou, a tree-dwelling creature that uses its adaptations to prey on… fruit, mostly.

Hosted by: Olivia Gordon

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Olivia: If I asked you to picture a carnivore in your head, you might conjure up an image of a powerful lion or a lone wolf.  All carnivores, that is, mammals in the order carnivora, have some things in common.  You know, mostly that they hunt and eat meat using their sharp claws and specialized teeth, but there's one carnivore that breaks all the biological rules: the kinkajou.  

Kinkajous are found in the tropical rainforests of Southern Mexico and South America.  They spend their days high in trees and they've evolved some pretty nifty adaptations to this arboreal lifestyle.  Almost everything about these furry tree dwellers would make you think they're a primate, but they're actually carnivores in the family procyonidae, which makes things like raccoons, coatis, (?~0:45) and ring-tails their closest relatives.  

Scientists think that kinkajous evolved as an early off-shoot of this group about 22.6 million years ago and they've kept some of their carnivorous traits, but pretty much everything else about them isn't what you'd expect.  Instead of using their sharp claws to hunt down prey like bears or cats do, they use them for gripping tree branches.  Kinkajous also have a muscle called the flexor brevis digitorum manus that runs from the pinky finger to the wrist, meaning they can sort of pseudo-oppose their digits to get an even better grip, but since the kinkajou's favorite past-time is snacking, most of the time, they need their hands for picking ripe fruit.

That's where their prehensile, or grasping, tails come in.  There's only one other carnivore with a prehensile tail, making the kinkajou pretty special indeed.  Maybe the creepiest adaptation they have, though, is their ability to rotate their hind feet to face backwards.  That allows them to hang upside-down with their heads facing forward.  Don't try that on the jungle gym.  

All these abilities give kinkajous access to the treetops for food, giving them an advantage over their less flexible friends, and when it comes to food, kinkajous don't actually eat very much meat.  Pretty strange for a carnivore, right?  Their diet is about 90% fruit and 10% leaves, flowers, and honey, with a few ants or termites thrown in for good measure, and remember how we said kinkajous still have some of their carnivorous features? 

One of those is their canine teeth, which are much better at tearing meat than eating fruit, and that makes the kinkajou a pretty messy eater.  But that's not so bad, because that means it's unknowingly acting as a seed disperser.  They basically eat with the efficiency of a toddler, spreading seeds all over the forest floor.  

Kinkajous can also act as pollinators as they get dusted with pollen as they stick their heads and long sticky tongues into flowers to sip up nectar.  Of the hundreds of thousands of species of pollinators known by scientists, only about a tenth of a percent are mammals and most of those are bats.  Very few non-flying mammals and even fewer carnivores help plants swap pollen.  Although scientists aren't sure how much kinkajous help with pollinating compared to insects or other mammals, they do know that they help out with some plants, such as the nutmeg-like (?~2:51) or the purple star apple and their teeth aren't the only evolutionary hangover kinkajous have.

They also have carnivore-like guts.  That gives them the flexibility to eat a range of different foods and it means that it only takes them around two and a half hours to turn that juicy, plump fruit into a little pile of kinkajou poop.  Pretty darn fast when you compare it to other animals that eat a lot of plants like cows.  They need to ferment their food to get the nutrients out, a process that can take one to three days.  Because the kinkajous are so quick to evacuate their stomachs, they aren't that efficient at taking in nutrients from their food.  They make up for it, though, by having a slow metabolism, so they don't need as much fuel as similarly sized carnivores.  

Now, you might be thinking, d'aww, these fruit eating fluff balls are so cute.  You may have even seen Paris Hilton in the 90s slinking around with one around her shoulders, but it's not a great idea to have these little guys as pets.   They need a large area to exercise and are awake and want to play when you're trying to sleep.  They have a super specialized diet and can transmit some pretty nasty infections.  Not to mention those sharp claws and teeth.  They can still shred flesh, even if they're usually used to rip apart fruit.  So let's just leave these curious carnivores in the rainforest, shall we?  That would be great.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow.  If you like weird animals, you might like our episode on why echidnas are evolutionary misfits.