Today’s lovely animal goes by a myriad of names: Zorilla, striped polecat, African polecat, and African skunk, to name a few. Most of these names are inaccurate — though the zorilla looks a bit like a skunk, it is not one, and the name ‘zorilla’ is derived from the Spanish for fox. In fact, zorillas belong in the weasel family, Mustelidae.

The distribution of zorillas in Africa. Image by Nrg800, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One part of their common name is correct: African polecats do live in Africa. They are distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, though not in the Congo basin and along the western coast. They do well in a variety of habitats, such as deserts, forests, mountains and swamps, though zorillas prefer savannahs and semi-arid climes.

Zorillas are medium sized Carnivores, reaching 28-30 cm long (not including the tail), and weighing between 1-1.4 kg. Generally zorillas have black fur, with a variety of white markings. Their faces have white spots, and their ears are dipped in white. Four white stripes run the length of the body and tail.

Zorillas are quite aggressive, even towards members of their own species. The only time zorillas can get together without attacking one another is during the breeding season. Females give birth to one to five pups after a four-week gestation period. The young are blind and hairless and very vulnerable when they are born, and rely on their mother for food and protection. Young zorillas are able to hunt at nine weeks of age, but are looked after until they reach eighteen weeks.

I said that zorillas are aggressive, but they have a number of other techniques they use to deter predators. Firstly, zorillas give their attackers plenty of warning sounds, mostly growls and barks. If the attacker persists, the growling turns into screams. Woe to the assailant that ignores that sound!

For, much like skunks, zorillas have the ability to spray foul liquid from their anal glands. This will temporarily blind a predator, as well as causing a burning feeling on any exposed mucous membranes. If the predator still persists, zorillas play dead, allowing the poor hunter to try and bite them. The zorillas are still covered in the anal gland secretions, and so taste terrible. If all goes well, the predator will release the zorilla and stomp away, miserable and smelly (and hungry!).

Zorillas are doing quite well in the wild, though they are frequent victims of roadkill. Also, apparently some people keep zorillas as pets (though with the anal glands removed). I’m not sure I’d want a wild, aggressive animal in my house, even if it didn’t smell. Give me a puppy any day!

Cover image by Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons