Sunday 15 November 2020

Small Cats: Rare Cats of Southeast Asia

Asian golden cat
Wild cats are generally quite elusive species, once we ignore the "big cats" such as tigers and leopards. Some of the small to medium species are nonetheless fairly well-known in the west, including such animals as lynxes and ocelots. But many of them are rather more obscure, tending to be stealthy, nocturnal hunters whose success at feeding themselves often relies on them not being seen. If we combine small size with heavy undergrowth - and, perhaps, not being found in Europe or North America - we are likely to find a few species that are rarely seen at all. 

The forests of Southeast Asia are particularly good place for such creatures to be found, and, in fact, I've already described a number of small cat species that inhabit the region. Those all belong to the "leopard cat" and "domestic cat" evolutionary lineages, but there are a further three species that occupy yet another branch on the cat family tree. Given what I've said above, it shouldn't be surprising that we don't know very much about them.

The most common and widespread of these is the Asiatic golden cat (Catopuma temminckii). It's sometimes called Temminck's cat, perhaps to avoid confusion with the African golden cat. However, Dutch naturalist Coenraad Temminck had nothing much to do with the discovery, despite his many other contributions to the cataloguing of animals in the area (both he and one of the naturalists who first described it, had connections with the Dutch East India Company) which may explain why it's no longer the preferred name.

It's found throughout much of Southeast Asia, from Nepal in the west to southern China in the north and Sumatra in the south. It's a forest-dwelling cat, but, as its wide range might indicate, the type of forest may not matter very much to it - the high-altitude deciduous forests of the Himalayan foothills are quite different from the dense jungles of Sumatra. Having said which, so much of this forest is being cleared for agriculture that it mostly seems to be restricted to isolated spots across its range, although not by enough (yet) to form an imminent threat to its continued survival.

Physically, it's quite large for a "small" cat, with males weighing up to 14 kg (31 lbs), and females around 9 kg (20 lbs). This makes it smaller than, say, a bobcat or lynx, but not by much. As the name suggests, it usually has a rich golden coat (and much more so than the African golden cat), although the shade can vary from reddish to grey and rare all-black individuals also exist. More surprisingly, a population in the hills of southwest China have a marbled pattern of spots, somewhat resembling the coat colour of an ocelot. These were formerly thought to represent a distinct subspecies, but genetic analysis has failed to find any significant difference, suggesting that they're no more a subspecies than blond humans are.

Scientific records of Asian golden cats in the wild are largely restricted to "hey, we put up a camera trap in a nature reserve looking for something else, and guess what we also found!" Despite the variability of the coat-colour on the body, which might help to make the cats adapt to different environments, the relatively large size of the animals and the distinctive facial markings that they all seem to have make them easy enough to distinguish from anything else that might live nearby.

Still, even isolated photographs of wild animals randomly passing a camera are enough to tell us that Asian golden cats are not especially nocturnal. While it is true that they are more often photographed walking about at night than during the day, this isn't a strong trend. It may be that they prefer the twilight hours to either darkness or full sunlight, or that they vary their habits depending on where they live and when the local prey is available.

Speaking of which, being larger than many other cats, they can also take some moderately-sized animals. While rats, birds, and lizards form the bulk of their prey, they do also take small deer and wild goats and a record from 1939 describes one as having killed a buffalo calf. While most indications are that they primarily hunt on the ground, they can climb trees, and there are some records of them killing monkeys.

The only reason we know any more about them than this is that some Asian golden cats are kept in zoos. From these captive animals, we can tell that their other behaviours seem to be typical of cats, for instance, marking their territory by urine spraying and making the usual purring and meowing noises. They are difficult to breed in captivity, but not impossible. So we know, for example, that they typically give birth to a single kitten at a time although twins and triplets do also occur.

Marbled cats
The marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata) was once thought to be very closely related to the Asian golden cat, but the latest data suggests that they last shared a common ancestor during the Late Miocene, over 5 million years ago. That's enough for them now to be placed in their own genus, and it's certainly true that, by the standards of cats, they don't look all that similar.

Marbled cats are about the size of the domestic animal, with a pattern of marbled patches on the body and spots on the legs and tail. The tail is exceptionally long, typically about the same as the length of the head and body combined, and the feet unusually broad. Both of these are thought to be adaptations to climbing and balancing on tree branches, and they do seem to spend a lot of time in the trees.

It is found over a similar range to the Asian golden cat, although it has a more marked preference for humid tropical and subtropical forests, and is also found further east, on Borneo. Where it reaches Nepal in the west, it is found in mixed forests with thick stands of bamboo; there is some suggestion that a preference for rugged terrain may mean that it's less threatened by the march of agriculture in more habitable regions. This remoteness, along with its smaller size and arboreal habits, mean that it is even less frequently seen in the wild than its golden relative.

Indeed, it's seen rarely enough that it's not even clear what it's usual activity patterns are. Some studies say that it's almost entirely nocturnal, as one might expect, but others suggest that it's only ever out and about during daylight hours. It's possible, of course, that this varies depending on where it lives, since the relevant studies took place in different geographic locales (and, for that matter, referred to different subspecies).

It seems to feed primarily on birds, although it's likely that rodents, such as tree squirrels, are also a common food source, given where it hunts. There is even one report of one attacking a monkey of similar size to itself. The monkey won, possibly because the cat spotted the scientists watching it and ran away, but at least it indicates that this is something they try.

There are just two reports of marbled cats breeding in captivity; in both cases, they gave birth to twins.

Bay cat
The bay cat (Catopuma badia) is even more closely related to the Asian golden cat, and, for a long time, was considered as no more than a subspecies of that animal. In fairness, they do look rather similar, although the bay cat is almost always at the reddish end of the coat colour spectrum compared with golden cats. They are also smaller, with a proportionately longer tail, although the only one to be weighed was visibly emaciated, so quite how much lighter they naturally are is hard to say.

Bay cats are only found on Borneo, primarily in the north of the island and in the mountainous interior. This makes them another jungle-dwelling cat, since there isn't much else in the wild parts of Borneo, although there is at least some variation from, say, highland forests to coastal mangrove swamps, both of which bay cats do seem to employ. Unlike the golden cat, they seem to be firmly nocturnal.

And, when it comes to the bay cat... that's basically it. They were first described on the basis of a skin and accompanying skull in 1874. Over the following decades, a total of five further skins were collected, and even those completely dried up after 1928. And then, in November 1992, some trappers brought one in to a museum, making it the first living example ever to be seen by scientists. 

Although that one specific animal is the one you're likely to see in almost any photograph published online (and, as mentioned above, it probably wasn't that thin when it was healthy) as camera traps have become more widely used by researchers in Borneo over the last couple of decades, we have snapped a few others. Still, it isn't very many, so either they're rare even where they do live or, just possibly, they don't live in the sort of places people put camera traps; Borneo does have rather a lot of very difficult terrain. Either way, since 2002 they have been officially listed as an endangered species, and, whether or not it's the single rarest cat in the world, it's fair to say that it is the least known.

Which finally brings me to the end of my survey of the small cat species of the world. Next month, I'll conclude this series by putting them into the larger picture of how wild cats have spread across the world...

[Photos by "Babirusa" and Jim Sanderson, from Wikimedia Commons. Lithograph by Joseph Smit, in the public domain.]


  1. A pair of additional points:

    Firstly, in recent years there was actually a Bay Cat briefly displayed at Taman Safari in Indonesia, which died in 2018 at an advanced age having been held off-show at the zoo for many years having been misidentified as an Asian Golden Cat due (ironically, given the emaciated state of the individual you discussed) to the fact it was somewhat obese. Photographs of this individual can be found here:

    Secondly, there have been a few more captive breedings of Marbled Cat than you indicate; I know of four litters which were born at Los Angeles in the 1970s (litters in 1971 and 1972 failed to survive, a single kitten was born and successfully hand-reared in 1974, and another kitten was born in 1976 and lived until 1990, holding the captive lifespan record for some time) and more recently, the private Al-Bustan Zoo in the UAE has held a breeding pair for about a decade, with litters born there relatively regularly. I believe the aforementioned lifespan record is now held by one of said pair.