Often called the Hummingbird cat, the Rusty Spotted cat is one of the smallest of the 33 small wild cat species and is about the size of a domestic kitten. That’s pretty much where the similarities stop though as this little cat is a fearless predator!
Its Latin name, Prionailurus rubiginosus, tells us it’s from the Prionailurus lineage along with other cats distributed across Asia such as the flat-headed cat, fishing cat and the leopard cat. Rubiginosus comes from 17th Century Latin meaning Red. In Sri Lanka, they are known locally as “kola diviya” or “balal diviya”.
Rusty Spotted cats can be found in India and in Sri Lanka with recent sightings also placing them in western Terai of Nepal. So rare is it to see one of these diminutive cats for a long time they were considered to be confined to Southern India. It wasn’t until recent sightings in Gir wildlife sanctuary in the West of India and Tadoba Andhari National Park in the East increased their range. Further sightings in Katarniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary in the north now has them placed across the entire Country.
Their head to body length is roughly just 35-50cm with a further 15-25cm tail. They weigh around 1kg for a small female to 1.6kg for a large male. As their name suggests their coats often have a rusty colouration. The fur is short and smooth and they are often seen with rows of red to brown spots that can often form complete stripes on the shoulders and neck. Their underside is often pale or white and the tail is thick and often has a dark tip.
Often thought of as forest hunters we now know that these cats are more adaptive than first believed and can be found thriving in all kinds of habitat from rocky outposts to wooded grasslands and have even been seen inhabiting humid montane forest 2,100m up in Sri Lanka. Rusties are nocturnal hunters and their large eyes are six times more powerful than ours. Their prey generally consists of small rodents such as gerbils, rats and mice. The cats that live near water will also consume reptiles like frogs and toads. To the locals, these cats have a fierce reputation and attacks have even been reported of them taking down prey several times their size such as baby gazelles.
Whilst they are ground hunters they are adept and climbing trees and their hunting approach is to sit and wait, often behind a rock, on a branch or in a bush, listening for its prey before launching itself into an attack.
Like many of the smaller cat species, Rusty-Spotted Cats are woefully understudied and with a lack of information available its difficult to fully understand this cats social behaviours. Being so small also makes it difficult to fit with a radio collar, although this has been managed with other cats of a similar size like the Black-Footed cat.
Like most wild cats they are assumed to be a solitary animal although this is not known for certain. Some archetypal territorial behaviours have been spotted in Sri Lanka as a young male was seen scent marking low hanging branches and bushes, and by rubbing vegetation with the scent glands in his cheeks as is often witnessed in other cat species.
Rusty Spotted Cats are rare and their populations are decreasing. They are currently listed as ‘Threatened’ by the IUCN. Estimating numbers for this cats is extremely difficult due to the lack of information or studies that are available. Threats to this cat, as usual, come mainly from humans. Habitat loss is a real issue for these cats as land farmed for agriculture has a major impact on these species in both India and in Sri Lanka. Given their size they have been seen to prosper in human-made environments but the impact this has on their wellbeing is not yet understood. There have been a few reports of Rusty Spotted cats pelts being sold into the fur trade and they have also been killed either due to being a perceived threat to livestock but also if they are mistaken for young Leopards which are feared.
We couldn’t find any conservation efforts specifically set up to help Rusty-Spotted Cats however Anya Ratnayaka, co-founder of the NGO Small Cat Advocacy & Research and her team are doing great work with wild cats in Sri Lanka including Rusty Spotted cats, fishing cats and jungle cats.
Find out more about their work here: Small Cat Advocacy & Research