What Is a Kinkajou?

Caitlin Shih

The kinkajou, also known as the honey bear, is a rain forest mammal native to Central and South America. It is a medium-sized animal often noted for its large eyes, with an outer golden or brownish coat of woolly fur. The kinkajou is an omnivore, but consumes mostly fruit, and while it will usually forage alone, it tends to sleep within family units. These animals are not endangered, but they are rarely seen by humans in the wild, most likely due to the fact that they are nocturnal. The kinkajou can also be domesticated, and as an exotic pet, it is usually playful and quiet and can live for decades in captivity.

A kinkajou is a rain forest mammal native to Central and South America.
A kinkajou is a rain forest mammal native to Central and South America.

Kinkajous as a species are related to raccoons, olingos, coatis, and ringtails. Adults generally weigh between 4 to 7 pounds (2 to 3 kilograms), and their body length generally reaches between 16 to 24 inches (40 to 60 centimeters), not including the tail. Their inner fur coat is generally gray, and they have small ears to accompany their large eyes. The feet of the kinkajou tend to be short, with five clawed toes on each foot for climbing trees.

Kinkajous only eat honey while in captivity.
Kinkajous only eat honey while in captivity.

While kinkajous are capable of eating meat, research shows that their diet consists 90% of fruit, while the other 10% consists mostly of flowers or leaves; in particular, they tend to have an special affinity for figs. They will sometimes eat insects, and some researchers contend that they may also eat small vertebrates or birds' eggs, although there is no direct evidence for this. In captivity, a kinkajou may eat honey, but this has not been observed for those in the wild. In addition, its diet plays a vital role in seed dispersal: when the kinkajou consumes fruits, the seeds are either defecated or fall out after being caught in the fur and are effectively planted in this way, hence maintaining the rain forest environment.

Kinkajous climb trees in a manner similar to monkeys, using both the claws on their feet as well as their tails, which act as a fifth hand. They mark their territory using scent glands near their mouths, throats, and bellies. The kinkajou will usually forage alone or in small groups, and they are much more social in other settings. For example, they are active in their family units, often sleeping together and grooming each other, and they may even associate with olingos. Kinkajous have a relatively strict nocturnal schedule, sleeping during the day hidden away in trees, with peak activity occurring between 7 p.m. to midnight and again at an hour before dawn.

As exotic pets, kinkajous are generally well-tempered and docile, but can be occasionally aggressive. In particular, they can be provoked by quick movements or loud noises. They do not emit an odor, making them agreeable pets in this sense, but they also tend to need a large area to roam and climb. The average lifespan of kinkajous in captivity is 23 years, but they are capable of growing to be 40-years-old.

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