The fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) is probably the first cat since the Pallas cat that we have covered that looks like a teddy bear. These things are so damn adorable looking. They do not have a typical feline headshape, instead they have these little tucked-back ears on a little round head that makes it look like the kind of animal you just want to hug.
They’re another of Asia’s wildcats and as their name would suggest they are pretty at home around water. Wetlands, rivers, lakes and mangroves are all places this little kitty calls home with populations mainly in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh, although it ranges down into Southeast Asia too. This disconnection, the fragmentation in its habitat, as well as exploitation of, and decline in its preferred wetland habitats have made this cat vulnerable. They are also subject to persecution where wetlands, rivers or lakes are converted to aquaculture, fish-farming and the like.
It is honestly sad to read about, knowing this is a vulnerable species we might be talking hundreds of animals a year dying due to human-related causes, whether that be exploitation, persecution, over-fishing reducing their prey species etc.
I’ve been having lots of discussion recently about living with, not against, nature, especially after my Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals series of articles. There is a lot we humans do to wall ourselves from the intrusion of the natural, there is a lot of ruin we do to keep our habitat pristine but at the expense of everything else. We disconnect ourselves from species that cannot live with us and feel uncomfortable with those that can. This little cat here is a perfect example.
This is no tiger, it’s no tiddler, but it’s no tiger either. I wouldn’t even call it a medium-sized cat. It is the largest known of all ‘small cat’ species. It is around 60-70cm head to body, with a short tail (Feline Pop-Quiz: What would it having a shorter tail suggest about its lifestyle?) of maybe 20-30cm, so It’s about 80-100cm total length, maybe 30-40cm shoulder height. We’re talking about twice the size of a domestic cat, with females at the dramatically lower end of the size scale (hitting around 6kg, whilst males can be up to 16kg). My sister’s cat, Bob, we’ve seen him before, is anywhere from 7-9kg depending on season and whether he’s been sneaking food elsewhere!
They have shortish fur that can range from yellow to grey, with characteristic stripes moving backwards from the face and becoming spottier as it moves back until it becomes a banded pattern at the tail. This fur is, like other aquatic or semi-aquatic animals, layered to provide insulation. They have a short layer and a longer layer of guard hairs.
Then we have the ears! Such cute little ears! Rounded more than pointed and set low and backwards so it looks like the cat is permanently spooked by something! It’s adorable.
Let’s answer the Pop-Quiz question? A shorter tail would suggest this cat does not heavily rely on balance to hunt, so it’s likely not a very arboreal (tree based) hunter (like the clouded leopard which has a very long tail) or a sprint hunter like the cheetah (also has quite a long tail). It’s not a bob-tail, though, so they can’t do without it, crawling along the branches in mangroves clearly requires some counterweight.
I asked you to think of that question for a good reason, and I was doing the same thing with my niece at the zoo the other week. There are certain inferences you can make about the lifestyle of an animal by looking at features of their anatomy. This ‘comparative anatomy’ is very important in evolutionary biology and phylogeny (where things go in the tree of life) but I think it’s also an awesome thing for a lay-audience to learn for if they spot something new or different.
There are things you can spot, e.g. it’s got a long tail, which can combine with other things, e.g. it’s got a greenish-grey colour with spots or stripes, that you can combine with even more features, e.g. it’s got relatively long, sharp teeth – and it all comes together into “This is a tree-dwelling or hunting carnivore species, it is camouflaged for life in vegetation, the long tail suggests it requires balance and the teeth suggest it eats other animals.”
You might be wrong! But this is part and parcel of any science, learning the ‘heuristics’ – the rules of thumb – to make inferences or predictions and then using observations and evidence to see if you are correct.
Common names are also quite useful for this. What do you reckon the ‘fishing cat’ eats?
If you guessed ‘fish’, you’re approximately 75% correct! Analysis of their poo in India suggests around three quarters of their diet is made up of fish, with molluscs, small reptiles, rodents, birds and insects making up most of the rest.
They are, unlike most feline species, strong swimmers and very comfortable in the water, even swimming underwater. They are believed to be mostly nocturnal and they have been seen hunting both at the sides of water, fishing almost as a domestic cat would at a pond, but also diving into the water to nab their fish.
Across much of Asia, in multiple different languages, this cat is named some variation of ‘fish tiger’. That’s awesome! It’s a cute little cat, but sadly human exploitation and conflict have put it in very real danger. Even with plans in place, even with protection orders across much of its habitat, many cats will die due to unnatural causes, mainly human. A study in Thailand that was radio-collaring the cats found 84% of them died due to poaching or ‘unknown causes’. They are prone to trapping, poisoning and snaring, too.
I always hate having to be so negative near the end of an article but to me it’s like someone killing their pet cat because they paw at the dinner on their plate, you know? These human/wildlife conflicts so often seem to come down to that. I get it, these areas of Asia aren’t exactly bursting with millionaires and these cats can probably come in and snatch several fish per evening. At the same time there are ways to peacefully co-exist, even to turn the fishing cat into an ally. Sadly for many of these people taking time, energy, money to learn how to co-exist with these cats is seldom an option.
It’s a tough problem. This is not like with tigers where I can be outright angry because poaching is the lazy way to make money off of them, because programmes and tourism schemes have shown demonstrably that wild tigers are bank, the promotion of wild tigers is in the financial interest of the communities who coexist with them. Are people going to invest in wildlife tourism to watch a fishing cat hunt? I would but I’m not ‘most people’ – I’m a feline freak!
There are charities and NGOs working right now in various areas to save this cat. To ensure its protection by finding ways to work with locals to slow conversion or habitat and create schemes where local communities can earn money with alternative means so they do not have to damage the habitats of these gorgeous wild cats, or directly persecute the cats themselves due to conflict.
Hopefully we see the fruits of these labours paying off in the coming decades, and fishing cats can find a comfortable, welcoming home by the rivers, lakes and mangroves of Asia.
Feline fine and in the mood to cat? We’ve got plenty more cat articles for you to purrr-use at your leisure!
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.
Caturday Special: The Origin Story – Proailurus and Pseudaelurus – The progenitor species of all modern cats examined.
Caturday Special: The Snow Leopard – The ‘Ghost of the Mountains’ gets an examination, a beautiful cat with some remarkable characteristics.
Caturday Special: The Scottish Wildcat – Once an emblem of so many Scottish clans, now this poor, cute, and feisty wildcat is struggling to survive due to historic persecution and current ongoing interbreeding with domestic cats.
Caturday Special: The Serval – Find out about this elegant and beautiful medium-sized African wildcat and how it has become part of our domesticated cat lineage!
Caturday Special: The Kodkod – The smallest cat in the Americas and endemic to only a small part of Chile and Argentina, find out about this amazing little boopster.
Caturday Special: The Feliformia and the Spotted Hyena – Did you know that hyenas are actually more closely related to cats than to dogs? They are members of sub-order of carnivores called ‘Feliformiae‘ or the cat-like carnivores. Learn more about them, the hyena and the hyena’s remarkable genitals here.
Caturday Special: The Cougar – The second biggest cat in the Americas is actually more closely related to your domestic moggy than the lion! Learn more!
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Lynx – One of my continent’s most handsome predators and one that certain groups are looking to get reintroduced to the UK after a 1,000 year absence in the hope it will control rabbit and roe deer numbers. I’m all for it!
Caturday Special: Hybrids – Looking at the phenomenon of hybrid species, with focus on cats like the liger, the pumapard and the Kellas cat, as well as some talk about domestic hybrids like chausie, bengals and caracats.