10 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About The Honey Badger

Dave McNab, who has firsthand experience after working as a Field Guide in South Africa, gives us 10 interesting facts about the Honey Badger

“Honey badgers are what you might call a ‘cult classic’ of the African bush. Many people fan out with the limelight stealing ‘Big 5’ because of harrowing tales of fighting off lions, leopards, and anything else foolish enough to pick a fight with them. Their larger-than-life character and never-say-die attitude have rightfully placed these small but mighty badgers at an almost mythical status.

I’m sure we have all seen the legendary footage often shown on wildlife documentaries and the over-dramatized American shows showcasing a pride of lions scampering off in defeat against a lone badger. Or, being attacked by a cackle of hungry hyenas and holding its own in an impressive show of aggression. From what I have seen of these, undoubtedly entertaining shows, is that there is not a vast amount of facts and figures, of which there are plenty to showcase so, I have put together a list of 10 of the lesser-known and interesting facts.
  1. Honey badgers are not actually badgers at all! Although they (loosely) resemble the badgers that are commonly seen in Europe they share very few characteristics to the reserved nocturnal creatures except similar size and being black and white in colour. Their real name is Mellivora capensis, which translates to “honey eater of the cape” and are actually more closely related to the Wolverine than anything else.
  2. They are commonly known in some areas as Ratels rather than honey badgers and there are 2 explanations for this term. Ratel means honeycomb in Dutch, which, along with its more popular name is apt due to their honey-munching antics. Ratel is also the word for a rattle in Afrikaans, and when the honey badger finds itself in a position where it’s backed in a corner and ready to fight, or perhaps wants to warn something off that it will be willing to fight if need be it does so with a loud rattling sound.
  3. We know of course that these omnivores (eat pretty much everything) have a particularly sweet tooth. How do they find all that sweet honey? There is an amazingly special relationship between them and a small bird called a Honeyguide. The birds locate beehives and shout out and make the location known to the honey badgers, They then home in on where the indicative birds are and begin to break open the hive and feast on the honey. Always careful however to not finish it off and leave some easy to get to pieces for its partner in crime, the Honeyguide, who then comes down to join the feast. Notably, the birds are eating more of the beeswax and larvae but would not have the strength to break into the hive without its fearsome partner. This is a classic case of a mutualistic symbiotic relationship where both benefit from this most unusual of partnerships.  Some say they have seen these birds seek out a nearby ratel and lead them tree to tree of the known whereabouts of a sweet store.
  4. Honey badgers have exceptionally thick skin, in fact, thicker than almost any other animal (apart from Elephants, Rhinos and Giraffes!) Their skin is at least 6 millimetres thick, which to put into perspective is thicker than a Buffalo, an animal more than 50 times its size. The skin has a rubbery quality and is far larger than the animal itself. Essentially, the skin is like a set of loose-fitting clothes that the animal can move around in. This is great self-defence against spears, arrows, bee stings and the sharp teeth of predators (including snakes). This key adaptation gives them the ability to slither out of a predator's grip. When a threatening animal bites or tries to grab and hold the honey badger, the badger can twist and turn out of its skin leaving the predator with nothing but a mouthful of the rubbery epidermis. At the same moment, the honey badger can twist around and give a mean bite or almighty swipe with its oversized claws to its enemy. One of the main reasons for them coming up trumps in most fights is that they may look outsized.
  5. Using their long claws, honey badgers dig burrows to rest in, almost daily. They’ll do it anywhere – in the ground, in a tree trunk, or even in termite mounds. If needed, they can dig themselves into a hiding hole in a matter of minutes and use their natural excavation skills to capture prey underground.
  6. Normally animals with the reputation of being brutish, fearless or ferocious come with an air of being ‘not the sharpest tool in the shed’. Honey Badgers, however, break the mould. So intelligent that they have been known to use tools, as documented in a famous video online from a research centre in South Africa, which revealed the use of sticks, rakes, mud and stones to aid their escape. This remarkable behaviour has also been witnessed in the wild with the likes of rocks being used to smash open ostrich eggs and poke sticks into termite mounds.
  7. The jaw and the bite force are up there with the strongest, so strong that it can almost never be dislocated. If a honey badger bites into something, there is not much that can be done to force it to let go.
  8. They have no visible ears, instead their ears are tucked away within the thick skin that is on the back of their head. The obvious benefit of this adaptation is that they are not easily bitten or clawed off in a fight and perhaps aid the burrowing capabilities by not having awkward protruding shapes getting snagged as they go. Despite the lack of visible lobes and lugs, they still have a surprisingly good sense of hearing along with their strong sense of smell and keen diurnal and nocturnal sight.
  9. It’s no surprise that foes of the badger often meet a messy end, but there is one vicious habit that makes us males gulp with fear. It has been known that honey badgers go for anything dangling they can easily reach, most especially between the legs. This action has been reported many times and is a tale that is often told around campfires of the African bush when the discussion inevitably goes on to the more gruesome tales. After the castration of its prey, it will potentially wait for its victim to bleed out before the commencement of the feast.
  10. The fact of the honey badger being completely resilient to snake bites is not a new one, but just as famous is the debunking of this fact and that this is a myth. The fact that you maybe didn’t know is that the debunked fact has been debunked and there is some truth in it. Up to 25% of the honey badger's omnivorous diet is made up of venomous snakes, so it’s no surprise that they have evolved some natural protection against venomous bites, this is, of course, the same for scorpion and bee stings. With the badger’s skin being as thick and loose as it is, this is a reason that no one can dispute it being resilient to stings and bites. However, this doesn’t explain why on numerous occasions they have been bitten by a highly venomous snake, such as a cobra and thereafter falling asleep for a while. This would be a deadly amount of venom for a much larger animal, but the badger makes up and seems to be completely fine. Scientists have now found that they carry molecular mutations that prevent the venom from entering the cells, where the damage is done. Interestingly they have found the same molecular mutations in mongoose, hedgehogs and even pigs. It is believed that the discovery may even lead to more effective anti-venoms and treatments for us.”
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by David McNab

Image by: Derek Keats from Johannesburg, South Africa – Honey badger, Mellivora capensis, carrying young pup in her mouth at Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Northern Cape, South Africa, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59279257