Why Popcorn Smells Like a Bearcat’s Butt
Binturongs smell like popcorn. Or popcorn smells like binturongs. I guess it depends on your perspective. Either way, when I stopped by the enclosure of the large, blue-grey bearcat at the San Diego Zoo last month, the warm, buttery scent was unmistakable. What I heard celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna say on television for so many years was true — the big viverrid smelled like a movie theater lobby.
Binturongs, a cousin of civets and found in the rainforests of Asia from Nepal to Java, aren’t the only mammals with perplexingly familiar scents. Before I started wondering about butter-scented binturongs, my attention was drawn to the pee of maned wolves. The urine of these stilt-legged canids is redolent of marijuana. The reason why has to do with organic compounds called pyrazines which are often used for communication in both plants and animals — in milkweed and maned wolves alike, pyrazines create long-lasting, smelly “Get lost!” signals. After I caught a whiff of the captive binturongs, I wondered if something similar might be behind their unique odor.
There’s something about the rear ends of members of the civet family.