Why are we covering the rusty-spotted cat? Well…look at it! It’s adorable.
This is possibly the smallest extant cat in the world, found in India and Sri Lanka. Of the Prionaulurus genus of Asian wildcats (we’ve already covered one other, in the fishing cat) it is believed to be the most basal. That is to say genetic evidence suggests the rusty-spotted cat was the first to diverge from their common ancestor around 6 million to 3 million years ago.
It is a tiny cat, much like with the black-footed cat we covered before it would be easy to mistake it for a kitten. They probably look no bigger than a few months old kitten, but this is a full-grown cat. They are only up to 50cm long (usually somewhere between 35-45cm) and with a 15-30cm tail giving it less than a metre length, shoulder height is only around 20cm. They are tiny!
With a sandy coloured coat, bordering on a ginger hue, a reddish fur with the rusty spots that gives it its name running down the body. It also has some dark stripes, usually on the face, going up the head and one across the breast where there may also be more spots.
With a coat like that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was exclusively a hunter of grassland and scrubland. It is, actually, also a forest hunter. Wherever it hunts it is shy and prefers the cover of trees and rocks.
The rusty-spotted cat is a ground hunter where it eats mainly rodents and small birds but, ever the opportunists, lizards, insects etc. are also on the menu. In some of their distribution they have come to inhabit densely populated agricultural areas where rodent numbers are also high.
Thankfully because of their diet of smaller rodents and birds they do not appear to have much conflict with humans although humans being humans they are still killed from time to time as ‘livestock pests’. Unless you’re farming rats you can actually fuck off! It can also be hunted for food or for skins.
Habitat loss and conversion to agricultural land is their biggest and most serious problem in both their Indian and Sri Lankan habitats. The ability of them to populate cultivated areas gives some hope that even as this habitat is increasingly exploited they may still have a place, but to what extent these interactions are sustainable is unknown. Without the rocks and trees, without their refugia, we do not know if these cats can sustainably thrive.
One other interesting thing about rusty-spotted cats, and to drag us from the realm of actually being quite serious to be a bit less disciplined and on brand – they fuck quick! They have an unusually short mating and it is believed to be due to the fact that they’re so small and obviously vulnerable during sex. When you’re surrounded by much larger stuff that wants you dead you haven’t really got time for an extended nookie session in the woods, you’ve gotta cum and go! They also give birth to small litters, only one or two individual kittens weighing around 70g on birth!
The thing with species like the rusty-spotted cat, and I’ve said it before about other small cats, is we always know too little about them. The difficulty of actually finding them, observing them and seeing their behaviour versus even elusive big cats like tigers or snow leopards, makes them hardly something big budgets are going to be thrown at to exclusive watch them.
As I understand it (and any ecologists are free to set me right) the way of a lot of investigative, observational wildlife research goes you are given a budget to investigate an area, with possibly a few target species. Across India, for example, on a feline investigation your main targets might be the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris) and the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) but you will also be observing various other things; the state of the habitat, any legal or illegal changes to the habitat, invertebrate species diversity and density, prey species diversity and density as well as other species such as smaller predators, cats, birds etc. You may even be in a multi-specialist team with all of you separately investigating different things.
These keeps budgets efficient but also allows funds that go to, for example, tiger conservation, to be funnelled into understanding the wider ecosystem in which tigers exist and figuring out what’s healthy and what isn’t.
In an ideal world there would be enough budget in the kitty (pun intended) to throw a few hundred thousand at a researcher just to set up base and watch one specific cat for a while but sadly this is not that ideal world. Whilst Jeff Bezos invests his exploited, globally tax-dodged billions on trying to wank himself into space we have to streamline research efforts.
I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea either. We Lack Discipline are ‘We Lack Discipline’ for a reason. Interdisciplinary study is, in my opinion, vital for the advancement of the scientific understanding of our universe. Sending botanists, felinologists, ecologists, entomologists, ecologists, geographers, anthropologists etc. etc. off on a single project may lead to the uncovering of problems and conflicts or solutions that perhaps a single-discipline project would not.
But still it should be stressed the main reasons these sorts of studies are often time-limited, staff limited and not able to focus on one particular species is almost exclusively money or a lack of it.
It’s a shame, because I am sure the rusty-spotted cat has unknown charms and quirks, has means of interacting, noises it makes, movements, boops and wiggles that we have never seen because they are so shy, so small and so hidden.
They are near-threatened according to the IUCN, so hopefully we can see a bit more of their wild behaviour before they start inevitably tumbling down those categories of threat.
Feline in the mood to read more cats? Purr-fect! We’ve got cats!
Top Ten Cats: Introduction – The basics of cat biology, evolution and natural history.
Top Ten Cats #10 – The Pallas’ cat – a small, very fluffy pika-hunter from Asia.
Top Ten Cats #9 – Jaguarundi – A unique and little known Puma relative.
Top Ten Cats #8 – Clouded Leopard – A stealthy and stunning Asian cat.
Top Ten Cats #7 – Jaguar – Beauty in spades, loves swimming, cracks skulls with teeth…
Top Ten Cats #6 – Lion – Emblematic, beautiful and social, an amazing cat.
Top Ten Cats #5 – Black-footed cat – one of the smallest, yet most deadly wild cats.
Top Ten Cats #4 – Smilodon – Going prehistoric with the sabre-toothed cats.
Top Ten Cats #3 – Tiger – One of the most gorgeous animals to have ever existed.
Top Ten Cats #2 – Cheetah – The placid lovechild of a sportscar and a murderer.
Top Ten Cats #1 – Domestic cats – Saviour of our foodstores and loving companions.
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Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
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Caturday Special: Homotherium – Less well-known than their Smilodon cousins, these pre-historic, sabre-toothed beasties have some incredible evidence for intelligence, social behaviour and the evolution of butchery!
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