The old hitchhiking-genet beat had been sadly quiet for quite a few years, but we’re happy to say it’s lately roared back to life (relatively speaking).

Late last year, a camera trap operated by the Big Life Foundation in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills revealed a genet – part of a family of small carnivores known as viverrids – sitting pretty perched atop a black rhinoceros:

This is sort of a big deal. The unusual behaviour had, until now, only been documented in South Africa, where it may have been the work of a single genet. The Kenyan record proves it extends – though to just what degree, we don’t know – to multiple genets in multiple geographies.

It was back in the mid-2010s that Wildlife ACT trail cameras captured the hitchhiking predilections of at least one rusty-spotted genet in KwaZulu-Natal’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. In 2014, the genet was photographed riding an impressive string of mounts: two different African buffalo as well as some rhinos. And the following year, camera traps managed to film the little rodeo king – which at that point had earned a nickname, “Genet Jackson,” and its own Twitter account – on the back of a black rhino.

Genet Rides A Black Rhino 2015 07 21
Yee-haw. A bucking black rhino in South Africa tries to shed its genet cargo. © Wildlife ACT

Multiple possible explanations were floated to account for what would seem like a rather risky and energetically demanding activity for a genet to pursue. Cattle egrets are so-named for their habit of following or riding upon big mammals to snatch flushed insects and the like; perhaps genets – omnivores fond of small vertebrates and arthropods – might do the same, using the grazer itself as a high-standing perch to scout for scattering quarry.

Or maybe it’s an ungulate’s prodigious tick load that draws the viverrid. Perhaps the topside of a hulking walking tank such as a rhinoceros provides the genet – itself vulnerable to a number of predators – safer shuttle through the bush.

In light of the new observation from Kenya, we pinged the team at African Small Carnivore Research Initiatives (ASCaRIs) for insights into what exactly genets might be trying to accomplish mounting-up on megaherbivores. The organization’s founder and executive director, Professor Emmanuel Do Linh San, keyed the rhino-rider in the Chyulu Hills as a rusty-spotted genet – the same species, in other words, as Genet Jackson.

By email, Do Linh San noted that all of the hypotheses floated before to account for the improbable arrangement are intriguing, but given “it does not seem to be a widespread behaviour, one should go for the most parsimonious (i.e. simplest) explanation.” 

And, while acknowledging the possibility, he’s skeptical that genets scurrying atop ungulates for safety or to pounce upon hoof-roused prey present that most parsimonious take.

“The simplest explanation with regards to genets, by far, is that buffalos and rhinos can be infested by a large number of ticks and other ectoparasites,” Do Linh San told me. Indeed, he points out that the 2015 KwaZulu-Natal footage seems to show the piggybacking genet snatching ticks from its rhino steed’s hide.

This cat-like carnivore was spotted riding a buffalo in South Africa back in 2014. Image © Wildlife Act Team/used with permission

Because buffalo and rhinos often rest on their bellies or sides – and don’t exactly spring to their feet unless compelled by a perceived threat – a light-footed genet might well be able to dart onboard to forage for creepy-crawlies. “I therefore imagine that a genet may have bumped into a sleeping rhino or buffalo while foraging on the ground at night, identified the ectoparasite infestation in a specific area (or all over the body), and tried and successfully fed on ticks,” he said.

“The buffalo/rhino may have been disturbed and stood, with the acrobatic genet managing to keep its balance, hence becoming the new king of rodeo,” Do Linh San continued. Such a genet might, conceivably, then be emboldened to repeat the routine – maybe, though at present there’s no evidence – even try to jump up on a standing ungulate.

While we tend to think mainly of birds such as cattle egrets, oxpeckers, or cowbirds doing this sort of all-aboard foraging on ectoparasites, Do Linh San pointed out there is at least some precedent for it among small carnivores. Banded mongooses have been seen climbing onto seemingly unbothered, and maybe downright grateful, warthogs to feed on ticks and other bloodsuckers – a brand of “you-scratch-my-back, I-give-you-lunch” mutualism, as David Attenborough phrased it:

Not all of Genet Jackson’s mounts were quite so obliging – perhaps not surprising, given the testy dispositions of their kind. The 2014 pictures suggested one of the buffalo might have tried to buck off its rider, and the 2015 video showed the black rhino in question wheeling about and the genet scrabbling to stay in the saddle.

So we now know rusty-spotted genets will ride megaherbivores in both South Africa and Kenya. And we can add these catlike hunters to a sundry animals-riding-animals roster that, besides the aforementioned birds, also includes crocodilian-surfing turtles (and vice versa) and deer-mounted macaques (which, at least in some cases, may have rather naughty intentions).

Interspecies hitchhiking is clearly a thing in our big, beautiful biosphere, most prominently in the arena of parasitism but also demonstrated by all manner of commensal examples (benefitting the rider and not the mount, which nonetheless isn’t harmed: remoras suctioned to a shark, for instance, or a turtle using an alligator’s back as a basking site) and mutualistic ones (e.g., mongooses de-ticking warthogs).

But it’s not yet clear how common hitchhiking actually is among genets. Perhaps it’s the domain of select individuals with extra-gritty courage and outsized ambitions – and maybe a bit of a show-off personality.

What we can conclude with certainty is that going all bronc-rider on an enormous horned beast is just one reason why genets – lithe and handsomely patterned as mammals come – are awesome. They and the many other small carnivores of Africa tend to be overshadowed by that continent’s superlative lineup of megafauna (not least of the toothy variety), but they perform their own vital ecological roles and, in many cases, face uncertain conservation situations. It’s the mission of the non-profit ASCaRIs to bolster research into this precious, pintsized guild of African hunters, the more-than-a-dozen species of genet very much included.


Top header image: Steve Garvie, Flickr