About five million years ago, the West Coast of South Africa saw its share of dangerous mammals - wolverines, bears, saber-tooth tigers - and now, a small carnivore related to the modern honey badger.

Paleontologists Alberto Valenciano Vaquero and Romala Govender, both from the Iziko Museums of South Africa, discovered the ancient honey badger-like creature, dated 5.2 million years ago. The pair published their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, detailing one of the world's best-preserved mammal specimens of the early Pliocene- including saber-toothed cats, hyenas, jackals, and relatives of modern giraffes, elephants, wild pigs, as well as other animals like birds, fishes, and aquatic mammals.

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The Modern Honey Badger

Also known as the ratel, honey badgers (Mellivora capensis) belong to the carnivorous family of mustelids, together with weasels, badgers, ferrets, otters, martens, minks, and wolverines. Honey badgers are distributed across sub-Saharan Africa up to East Asia, including the Indian subcontinent.

Despite its relatively small size, weighing between 9 to 14 kilograms on average, honey badgers have earned a reputation as one of the most aggressive and fierce animals - facing predators much larger than itself on a regular basis. It has been documented to face other species including lions, hyenas, and venomous snakes. In terms of its diet, it has been known to raid beehives in search of honey as well as bee larva. Honey badgers feed on insects, frogs, and rodents, as well as bulbs, roots, and berries.

The discovery from the early Pliocene site of Langebaanweg was previously described by South African paleontologist Brett Hendey more than four decades ago, identifying it as Mellivora benfieldi from recovered jawbone fragments.


A Surviving Member of a More Diverse Group

"The new honey badger fossils we describe triple the number of known fossils and give us a unique glimpse into its lifestyle and relationship to other similar mustelids," Valenciano explains in an article from Taylor & Francis. He adds that the fossils show how the South African species is different from those found in Central Africa (Howellictis) and East Africa (Erokomellivora), as well as the modern honey badgers.

This latest discovery also confirms the existence of Eomellivorini - an extinct genus of prehistoric mustelids. Researchers note that while the ratel is the only extant member of this mustelid subfamily, there have been other species in the past. Paleontologists behind the latest report proposed two distinct groups of mustelids. One is the mellivorini, which includes the extant honey badgers, the species found in Langebaanweg, and other similar creatures, while the other is Eomellivorini - characterized by gigantic proportions.

Professor Lars Werdelin from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, an expert on carnivores not involved in the study, explains that the identification of this group of giant mustelids covers a group adapted for pursuit, suggesting that these might have existed when similarly large cats were rare or non-existent.

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The recovered fossils also show that the Langebaanweg ratel was smaller than its modern relative, but was also an opportunistic carnivore with skills for digging burrows in the ground. Govender adds that the fossils were found during a time of climate and environmental change, which was a setting as to how these animals adapted to change.

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