The descriptively named Flat Headed cat is strange looking feline who maybe looks more suited to the Mustelidae (otters) or Viverridae (Civets) families. As mentioned on a previous post its very well suited to its aquatic lifestyle.
With a long, flat, elongated head, these cats have eyes that are very close together and farther forward on the head than usual allowing it to better judge distances. The ears are small and low down suggesting hearing isn’t as important as in other species such as the Serval. Its long, narrow jaw is filled with sharp backwards facing teeth, helping it catch and keep hold of its slippery prey such as frogs or fish.
Slightly bigger than the rusty spotted cat but smaller than the fishing cat these cats are roughly 40-50 cm in length and an average male will weigh roughly 2kg making them on average slightly smaller than a domestic cat.
They live in the wetlands of Asia and are scarcely distributed. Until as recently as 2013 they were considered extinct in Malaysia until it was spotted again in the Pasoh Forest Reserve. It’s thought there other habitats include Borneo and Sumatra.
Flat headed cats can be found scarcely distributed across Asian. Exact numbers are difficult to find due to a lack of research as is often the case with small wild cats. Being shy and reclusive animals they also often go unnoticed. In fact, they were considered to be extinct from Malaysia entirely until spotted on a camera trap in the Pasoh Forest Reserve in 2013.
Flat headed cats are one of the most threatened cat species on the planet and whilst they’re protected, with trade and hunting prohibited in Indonesia and Borneo, its habitat is getting smaller and smaller with an estimated 50% of its previous habitat now converted in croplands and plantations.
Following on from last week’s Olympic Small Cats we feature some more record breaking cats.
SMALLEST OF THE SMALL WILD CATS: RUSTY SPOTTED CAT
The Smallest of the Small Wild Cats is the tiny Rusty Spotted Cat. At just roughly 45cm in length and weighing just 1kg a fully grown Rusty Spotted cat is about the size of a kitten. Nicknamed the Humming bird cat, most of these cats are found in India and also Sri Lanka. It feeds on small mammals, birds, rodents and even frogs!
THICKEST FUR: MANUL
It may not be a great surprise to our followers that the fluffiest of all the cats is the Pallas’s Cat or Manul. As you can see they have thick, long fur all over, perfect for keeping warm at high altitudes and low temperatures. In fact Pallas cats can live comfortably in climates as low as -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50c).
BEST SWIMMER: FISHING CAT [Highly commended; Flat Headed Cat]
Again not a surprising candidate, the fishing cat is a wonderfully adapted cat for swimming. As side from the partial webbing between its toes which as we know is quiet common place even amongst domestic cats. Fishing cats can often be seen swimming and even diving into water for fish. Using its strong, thick tail as a rudder these cats have been known to swim long distances and even pursue prey underwater.
BEST CLIMBER: MARGAY [Highly commended; Clouded Leopard/Marbled Cat]
A subjective award and one difficult to decide but due to its pure agility this award goes to the Margay. Well known for its acrobatic skills and preference for heights the Margay truly is an arboreal hunter. Its morphology is perfect for life in the trees, with hind feet that can rotate 180 degrees to help climb down trees head first. Its large paws aid in jumping and its tail can measure up to 70% of its body length and act as a counterweight, great for balance in the canopy.
BIGGEST PAWS: CANADIAN LYNX [Highly commended; Clouded Leopard]
The largest paws among the Small Wild cat family go to the Canadian Lynx. Not only do these cats have huge paws they also have the ability to spread out their toes, increasing the surface area helping it manoeuvre quickly in deep snow much like a snowshoe. It also has think fur helping keep its toes warm in freezing conditions.
Something we get asked a lot at FELIS is; which is the fastest cat or which is the smallest cat of the wild cat species, so here we look at some of the Small Wild Cat Olympic Winners!
WORLDS FASTEST SMALL CAT: SERVAL
Everyone knows the Cheetah is the fastest land mammal, however the Serval isn’t far behind. With the longest legs of any cat species compared to the rest of their body, these cats are built for speed and power. Servals have been known to reach speeds of 80kph or 50mph making them the FASTEST small wild cat.
BIGGEST VERTICAL JUMP: CARACAL
Caracals have been known to jump a massive 3 metres or 10 feet vertically up! It’s because of this that they were once used for bird hunting in Iran and India. They were put into an arena containing pigeons and bets were taken as to how many birds the Caracal would catch. This is the origin of the phrase ‘to put the cat amongst the pigeons’.
BIGGEST TEETH: CLOUDED LEOPARD
Often compared to the extinct Sabre-toothed Tiger or, to give it its correct name, the Smilodon, the Clouded Leopard has the largest teeth in comparison to skull size of any of the cats. Both Sabre-toothed Tigers and Clouded Leopards have an enormous gape – around 100 degrees – to allow for such large teeth; in contrast most other cats have a gape around 65 degrees. This suggests that Clouded Leopards may have similar hunting techniques to the Sabre-tooths who would bite their prey through the neck to sever the nerves and kill the prey instantly. Typically, cats use a throat or muzzle grip to suffocate their prey.
MOST SUCCESFULL HUNTER: BLACK FOOTED CAT
‘Small but deadly’ would be the best way to describe these cats. As cute as they look, Black Footed Cats are lethal hunters. Referred to locally as Ant-hill Tigers, these cats are known to walk up to 20km a night, catching between 10-14 birds or rodents every time. An incredible 60% of their hunts are successful and they consume around 20% of their own body weight each night. Not bad for a cat that’s only around 50 cm in length.
WIDEST GEOGRAPHICAL DISTRIBUTION: ASIAN LEOPARD CAT
The Asian Leopard Cat’s range extends far and wide across Asia. From Russia to China, Indochina to western Pakistan and even to the Philippines and the islands of Indonesia. It’s gift is the ability to adapt. They have been found in tropical rainforests, coniferous forests and plantations at sea levels; they’ve even been recorded in Nepal’s Makalu-Barun National Park at an altitude of over 3,200m.
MOST ENDANGERED: IBERIAN LYNX
The award that no cat species wants goes to the Iberian Lynx. It is estimated there are only around 400 Iberian Lynx left. Whilst conservation efforts are in place and numbers have risen from just 100 individuals in 2002, Iberian Lynx are still endangered. The main threats to the Iberian Lynx are a decreasing food base, as endemics like Myxamatosis affect theirmain food source – rabbits. Illegal hunting, habitat loss and car accidents are also a factor in their decline.
If this cat goes extinct it will be the first cat species since the Sabre Tooth (Smilodon) to do so, some 10,000 years ago.
The clouded Leopard is the smallest of the big cats and the biggest of the small cats, so what is it that makes them so unique?
Split into two sub species as recently as 2006, the clouded and Sundra clouded leopard are very similar in appearance and size. Both have long bodies, short powerful legs with large paws and a very, very long tail.
Officially recorded as a species in 1821 the Clouded leopard is one of the most elusive and secretive cats in the world meaning that very few people have ever seen one in the wild. Both sub-species are rain-forest dwellers but can be found in dryer forests as well in Southeast Asia. Research has shown that in areas where clouded leopards share their habitat with tigers, clouded leopards seem to be more nocturnal and spend more time in the trees to avoid competition for food.
The canine teeth of a clouded leopard are the longest in relation to their size of any feline. Whilst they are able to purr like a small cat they also have a low, moaning roar, along with other chuffing noises, and meows as part of their calls.
Their tail is the longest, in relation to body size of any cats tails. It helps with balance as they move along the branches. Whilst being amazing tree climbers Clouded Leopards are also excellent swimmers and some believe this is how they came to inhabit small islands off Borneo and Vietnam.
Despite their name Clouded leopards are not closely related to leopards with Cloudeds diverging from the main Panthera lineage some 6.4 million years ago with leopard diverging around 3 million years later. Their name comes from the pattern on their coat and their scientific name Neofelis nebulosi roughly translates as New Cat Cloud. Interestingly in China they’re called mint leopards because they believe the pattern to look more like mint leaves.
Just like the Margay and Marbled cat, clouded leopards have ankles that can rotate backward so they can climb down a tree headfirst, climb upside down, and even hang from its back feet, leaving the powerful front paws free to snatch at prey. In Malaysia they’re often called Tree Tigers.
An Asian golden cat is about double the size of a big domestic cat and they come in a variety of different colours. Whilst their fur generally is either a golden colour or reddish brown, the coat itself has a large variety of colour and pattern variations.
In China and Bhutan there is even a heavily spotted form that looks like an ocelot and like most cats they also come in melanistic forms.
Asian golden cats are sometimes known as Temminck’s cat, named after the Dutch biologist Coenraad Temminck who first described the animals to western scientists in 1827.
Although these cats can climb trees they usually hunt on the ground and often take on prey larger than themselves. Whilst they were originally considered nocturnal hunters, but thanks to the recent GPS collaring of two individuals there is new evidence to support the idea they are Cathemeral hunters (active during the day and night).
In Thailand they are often called Seua Fai meaning Fire Tigers and the Kayin people of the Bhutan believe carrying around a single hair of the Asian Golden Cat will help to keep Tigers at bay.
Much like your domestic cat at home sleep takes up a major part of a small wild cats life.
For your average domestic cat this would normally average about 16-20 hours a day. As you would expect for a small wild cat this is much less. The reasons for this are rather obvious in that unlike your domestic cat they will have to catch their own food and they also have predators to worry about.
Today we will be looking at some small wild cats and their sleeping habits.
Unlike Lions, as far as we know, all small wild cats are solitary animals so strength in numbers and the ability to laze around like lions in the open isn’t an option. For this reason small cats have to be more cunning when it comes to finding a place to sleep. Luckily this is when cats excel.
The major impact as to a cats sleeping arrangements would be its habitat.
Take for example the desert, soaring temperatures during the day and cold at night with not an awful lot of vegetation to make a home. Two cats that have to deal with this situation are the Sand cat, found in the deserts of North Africa as well as the Middle East and Central Asia and the Black Footed Cat endemic to an arid south-westerly zone of South Africa.
These cats are opportunists as they will can often be found in burrows excavated by other animals. Neither cat has the ability to dig so look for (or create) abandoned burrows of Spring hares or even termites mounds. Sleeping during the day to avoid the heat and hunting at night. This has earned The Black footed cat the nickname Ant Hill Tiger.
A cat with a much more varied landscape for creating a home is the Bobcat of Northern America. It may be because of this that the bobcat can get a little greedy. It’s understood that bobcats typically don’t have just one den but sometimes three or even four.
The main den will often be a cave whilst a smaller den might be an old hollowed out tree stump. This will often allow then to have a much wider territory range with a male bobcat believed to have a territory of up to 60 square miles. Lynx, like Iberian Lynx below, show similar traits when finding a den.
Another factor that may impact where a cat sleeps and makes its home would be the cold. For cats such as the Pallas’s cat or Manul found in the Zoolon Mountains of Mongolia or the Andean mountain cat the cold will certainly play a part with temperatures dropping to below zero once the sun goes down. Unsurprisingly both cats have the morphology to deal with low temperatures both having thick fur and big bushy tails that they use like a scarf keeping their face and feet warm. Both these animals typically find shelter in cave found amid the mountain range.
Interestingly the Andean Mountain cat, much likes its prey Vicunas, are also known to use their dens as a latrine. Caves found known to harbour Andean Mountain cats are often found covered in cat feaces. Could it be that the cats, like the vicunas, sleep on the mounds of feaces taking advantage of the warmth produced by the decaying mess. Whilst it sounds a little dirty keeping warm at these altitudes can be the difference between life and death.
Some cats however seem to have it lucky, take this lynx cub, relaxed enough to fall asleep seemingly whilst climbing a tree….
…or this African Wild cat another totally at home in the branches of a tree..
..or this little Ocelot who has just awoken from its comfy tree stump.
Some cats we still no almost nothing about their sleeping habits, the Bay Cat of Borneo for example or the beautiful Marbled cat. Until more research is carried out we’ll just have to keep guessing…
A question we are often asked at FELIS is, “Why are there no wild cats in Australia?”. It’s an interesting question and we will attempt to explain the reasons for this and try to demonstrate how we know.
Oi! Stop yawning – this is interesting…
To begin to explain the lack of wild cat species in Australia we have to go way back in time. In fact, we have to go all the way back to around 200 million years ago, long before the origin of cats.
Through the fossil record we now know that the first fossilised cat remains (Proailurus lemanensis) are approximately 35 million years old, and it seems that cats began evolving rapidly during the Oligocene period, 33-23 million years ago, which relatively speaking is quite late in the earth’s geological history. From this we have our wonderful cat family Felidae.
Long before the first fossilized records of cats, in fact around 100 million years before, Australia, and its surrounding islands New Guinea and New Zealand had separated from the super continent of Gondwanaland and starting drifting east.
So Australia was cut adrift from the main continental mass a hundred million years before the first species of cats came along. It’s believed that since there has never been a land bridge (even during times of low sea levels) to Australia since the time of separation, wild cats, along with many other species including primates, were never able to colonize either Australia or New Zealand or New Guinea.
Amazingly, Africa at this time was also a separate continent without cats. From geological records we know that both Madagascar and the Indian Subcontinent were once connected to the east coast of Africa. Then, around 180 million years ago Madagascar and India separated from Africa and started moving Northwards before eventually reaching and crashing into the southern Coast of the Asian continent.
Fast forward a cool hundred million years and we now start to see the migration of cat species from Europe, which was then a vast subtropical forested landscape, into Asia. India, part of Asia, now started to become populated by these Asian wild cats.
The wild cats of Asia didn’t stop there however, populating the islands of Asia such as Bali, Borneo and Sumatra during times of low sea levels. Interestingly we know that there were once Tigers on Bali but its neighboring island of Lombok (separated by less than 100km) has no Tigers, in fact Lombok had no trace of cats at all.
It was this interesting fact, along with the differences in other flora and fauna between Bali and Lombok that lead the naturalist Alfred William Wallace to investigate. It is from his work that we now know that the islands of Bali, Java, Sumatra and other islands to the west were attached to Asia, and hence do have wild cats species, whilst Lombok and other Islands to the east were once attached to the Australian continent and therefore have no records of wild cat species.
It was this discovery that lead to an imaginary line separating the cat-rich islands of Bali et al to the West and the cat-free islands of Lombok to the East being called The Wallace line.
Of course, now the domestication of cats means that cats have conquered the World and can be found in all corners of the globe. Lets face it, it was only a matter of time..
Today we look at the eighth and last of the Lineages that make up the Felinae family. The Felis lineage. It’s the youngest of the linages and is thought to have diverged around 3.4 million years ago. It contains the ancestor to our domestic cats in the wildcat along with four other cat species. The five cats are all closely related and distributed in Africa and Eurasia. The Chinese Mountain cat has been classified as a Wildcat subspecies however with limited genetic data this is widely refuted and we have 5 cats to look at.
The largest of the Felis Lineage, the Jungle cat, was once considered to be related to the Lynx family and you can see the familiar small ear tufts, however there is no doubt now it belongs in the Felis Lineage. Diverging around 3 million years ago its closest relative is the Black footed cat and there are thought to be around 6 subspecies. The Jungle cat has a patchy distribution throughout Asia and despite its name it typically avoids dense jungle vegetation and is more suited to its alternative names Swamp Cat and Reed Cat.
The Black footed Cat is one of the smallest of the wild cats, only slightly larger than the Rusty Spotted Cat. It is however a renowned fearsome hunter. In Afrikaans its known as ‘Miershootier’ meaning Ant-Hill Tiger. During hunts they are thought to have around a 60% success rate with between 10-14 rodents or birds killed each night. An average of a kill every 50 minutes, amazingly consuming about 20% of their body weight every single night! They are endemic to Southern Africa and can be found in dry, open habitats with good cover for stalking prey. They can often be found in empty burrows created and abandoned by Aardvarks or Spring Hares.
The Sand Cat was once thought to have been related to the Pallas Cat, maybe because of the low set ears, however genetic analysis places it firmly in the Felis Lineage. They’re small diminutive cats with a pale sandy coloured pelt, small head and large ears. Its closest relative is the Wildcat with a distinct divergence estimated only around 2.5 million years ago. They have a discontinuous distribution across Africa with separate populations in Central Asia, the Middle east and the Arabian Peninsula. Whilst they are independent of drinking water, getting all the needed moisture from the liquid in their food sources, they do drink water when available. They also have furry paws giving them protection from the burning hot sands.
The Chinese Mountain cat taxonomy and phylogeny is one that is disputed. In 2007 It was reclassified as subspecies of the wild cat however, this study was based upon a very small sample number and the classification is disputed requiring further analysis. Along with the Andean Mountain cat and Bornean Bay cat they’re one of the least photograph cats in the wild and as such little is known about their behaviours.
The Wildcat is the last of the Felis Lineage to diverge and is the ancestor of the domestic cat. It is believed these cats began their domestication some 9,000 years ago in the fertile Crescent with African Wild cats acting as rodent control during the rise of new agricultural techniques and storage. Whilst there are up to 19 subspecies the most accepted and written about are the European Wild Cat, the African Wild cat and the Asiatic wildcat. The wildcat has an extensive distribution and they can be found throughout much of Eurasia and Africa. Subspecies such as the Scottish Wild cat are often highly endangered due to Hybridisation where a wild cat breeds with a domestic cat producing offspring. If this were to continue they could be eventually be wiped out entirely by genetic introgression.
And that completes the Wild cat lineage.
Also known as the Leopard Cat linage, the seventh divergence of eight in the Felinae family. It’s believed to have occurred roughly 6.2 Million years ago and as of 2017 contains six small wild cats with a tropical and temperate Asian distribution. The linage is also called the Prionailurus Lineage, Prion meaning Saw (the cutting tool) and ailur meaning cat. In 2017 the Leopard cats were split into two separate species The mainland Leopard Cat and the Sunda leopard cat meaning this group went from five to six.
Little is known about the Pallas’s cats evolutionary path. It’s believed to have been the first to diverge on the Leopard cat lineage around 5.9 million years ago. It has its own genus Otocolobus which rather cruelly translates as Ugly Ear (Oto – EAR, Kolobus – Ugly) Found in Rocky areas and deserts from Iran to China these cats are very distinctive to look at, with wide heads, big eyes with round pupils and rather attractive small ears low set on their head. They have the longest fur of any of the cat species and have a big bushy tail ideal for a scarf like use to keep its face and feet warm in the cold conditions of its native habitat.
The rusty Spotted cat is one of the smallest wild cats with its tail making up almost 50% of its body length. Distributed widely across India and Sri Lanka its understood that despite its diminutive figure it’s a ferocious hunter. Looking like a slightly faded variant of its cousin the Leopard cat the Rusty Spotted cat is a nocturnal hunter looking for frogs, birds reptiles and other small mammals.
Also verging on the small side is the flat-headed cat. Classified as extinct around the year 1985 it wasn’t until 1995 they were removed from the extinct list after they were spotted in Malaysia. With an elongated, flattened head and small, rounded ears, this distinctive looking member of the cat family bears a strong resemblance to civets and other viverrids. A crepuscular hunter who doesn’t mind the water their teeth are orientated backwards to help it hold onto slippery prey like frogs.
A close relation to the Flat headed cat and indeed with a slightly flat head themselves, the fishing cat is a stocky cat distributed across wetlands in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. With a distinctive coat typically made up of spots and blotches with stripes over the shoulders and back they’re very capable swimmers. With slightly webbed paws to help them paddle they use their short thick tail as a rudder. Fishing cats whiskers are incredibly sensitive and help to sense fish beneath the murky water in a similar way seals use theirs to sense prey.
Leopard cats are roughly the same size as a domestic cat and are the relatives of the Bengal cats many have as pets in their homes. The mainland leopard cat, which till 2017 was considered the same species as the Sunda Leopard cat, has two subspecies; P.B Bengalensis found in South and South east Asia and the Amur Leopard cat, native to Russia, Korea. There are also seven other subspecies with the Iriomote species classified as critically endangered.
As previously mentioned until May this year the Sunda Leopard cat was considered the same species as the Mainland Leopard Cat. Sunda Leopard cats are native to the Sundaland islands of Java, Bali, Sumatra, Palawan, Negros, Cebu and possibly the Malay Peninsula. There are currently two known subspecies.
Next time we wrap up the Cat lineage feature with The FELIS lineage!
The Puma lineage which diverged around 6.7 million years ago. In this lineage we see two of what we define as large cats and one small cat. Interestingly the two large cats, cheetahs and pumas are more closely related and similar to their smaller relations than they are to the large cat family. You could say these are small cats that have just developed larger bodies to help them survive and breed in their environment. The one defined small cat is the Jaguarundi a strange looking cat with a small head that maybe looks like its belongs in the Mustelids (Otters, weasels) family rather than the felines.
There are five Cheetahs subspecies, four African and one Asian. The Asian cheetah and one of the African subspecies (Hecki, West African) are critically endangered. Well known for its fast speeds and rudder like tail, cheetahs have now disappeared from approximately 80% of their historical range. Cheetah cubs are born with a mane that runs down their backs called a mantle (see picture) that slowly disappears as they grow older. Some biologists believe that it resembles the fur pattern of the bad tempered and feared Honey Badger helping it to protect the cub from other predators.
Pumas are the largest cats outside of the Panthera lineage and have one of the largest geographical ranges of any land mammal in the western hemisphere. They also hold the world record for the animal with the greatest number of names, with over 40 in English alone. The English name Puma originates from the Quechua word for Powerful. As well as being powerful pumas are good climbers and are capable of swimming maybe proving insight as to why they are so widely dispersed.
Perhaps the strangest looking cat in all the cat family is the Jaguarundi. Looking more like an otter and aptly named otter-cat by many, these sleek cats live in South and Central America and in Mexico. Its closest relative however is the puma sharing a common ancestor dating back 4.2 million years ago. Jaguarundis are very distinctive to look at with small narrow elongated heads with widely spaced rounded ears. They also come in a variety of different colours ranging from dark blackish grey to a bright brick red with the red-brown morph tending to be more common in dry, open habitats.
Next week we will be looking at the Prionailurus Lineage.