Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat (Pardofelis marmorata)

Seemingly caught with a camera trap – the elusive marbled cat. Not much bigger than a domestic cat, in fact the largest recorded of these species are smaller than my sister’s cat, Bob, who is huge. You can see the powerful limbs, big feet, long tail and amazing colouration that give great clues to this cat’s lifestyle. Also, what an adorable, tiny head! I wanna pet the kitty! (Credit: Jo Ross and Andrew Hearn, used without permission)

I was initially going to cover one of the extinct lion species for today, either the European cave lion (Panthera spelaea) or the American lion (Panthera Atrox). We will get around to those but in my sniffing about for what I have or have not covered I realised there was an entire clade I had not covered yet!

Now if you remember a clade is a group of organisms who it is believed share descent from a common ancestor. Theoretically every major taxonomic classification is a ‘clade’ so we tend to use it more often when describing a group of organisms that aren’t necessarily covered by one of the main taxonomic labels. In this case groups of cats that are related, within the same family and sub-family, but not the same genus. Certain groups have relationships like that, after all the cats of Asia may all be in the sub-family Felinae, but so are the ocelot clade, and they are half-a-world apart! This is where clades are useful.

KITTEN TAX (avoidance?) Allegedly a marbled cat kitten but I’m not 100% on the ID. I think it looks a bit more like a leopard cat myself, but I reckon it’s the closest you’re getting! (Credit: Unknown, via pinterest – Used without permission)

In this case I had been ignoring the lineage of the bay cats! I’ve done at least one species from every other extant cat clade except this one. (By the way if you want to check there’s a simple cladogram on the ‘Felidae’ wikipedia page – I’m not being patronising it’s the best place to look unless you’re a genomics researcher. In which case find the papers, you’ll love all the nonsense words, cladistics diagrams and phylogenies – It’s like Dr. Seuss for gene nerds!)

It’s easy to see why I skipped over them. These are hardly the most well-known cats in the world. The bay cat lineage only consists of three species in two genera. The genus Catopuma has C. badia, the bay cat, endemic to (so only lives on) Borneo, and C. temminckii, the Asian golden cat. The golden cat is a bit more widespread across Asia but it does have a very fragmented habitat. They are believed to have diverged from their nearest feline ancestor around 9 million years ago.

The other genus, Pardofelis is the one we are looking at today and it only had one extant species that we know of, P. marmorata, the marbled cat. Given the range and habitat of its near relatives you will likely be unsurprised to find out it lives in Southeast Asia, with a large population on Borneo.

Now I’m going to see if you are a regular reader and were paying attention to last week’s Caturday Special and our lesson on comparative anatomy.

Showing its exceptional climbing skills, a marbled cat on a tree in Borneo. Look how it straightens and flattens its tail to the tree on this ridiculous descent, making sure it can feel its way. Unbelievable. (Credit: Johan Embréus by GFDL)

The marbled cat has a beige-grey-green coloured coat, marbled with spots, patches and stripes and does not seem to demonstrate countershading, although the pattern does seem to differ on the belly versus on the back. It has large feet comparative to its body size, which is around 50cm long, with a tail maybe 30-50cm too – So the tail can be as long as the body. They weigh between 2-5kg.

If you were paying attention to my comparative anatomy lesson in last week’s Caturday Special you’ll already be able to tell me where this cat spends most of its life living and hunting.

The colouration and pattern is all forest. It has a coat very similar to a clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) in that regard. The lack of significant countershading is the first clue to its hunting behaviours along with that tail. They don’t just live in the trees, they likely hunt in them too, being arboreal (tree-based) hunters preying upon rodents, birds and lizards that scamper about in the trees. Given how little we see them they are suspected as a crepuscular (twilight) or nocturnal (night time) hunter, too.

It has unusually large canine teeth for its size, possibly one of the reasons it was once misidentified as being in the Pantherinae with the big cats. Could it’s arboreal hunting explain this, too? It’s also, again, seen in the clouded leopard, another mainly arboreal hunter with a wide diet. Now I’m no expert but, for example we believe the exceptionally large teeth of the Machairodontinae, the sabre-toothed cats, were the killing weapons. Given they were hunting plains megafauna there was no room for piss-arsing around, one kick from your prey and your skull is in fragments. So they had these massive daggers they could go for a swift kill with.

A captive marbled cat, but given how few images there are of this thing I was just happy to get one with those teefies! You can see, compared to the head-size those are some major fangs going on. Those canines are a cat’s murder-maker. They make the death happen. Most cats will use their powerful upper-body, forelimbs and shoulders, to drag prey down, hold it, so they can sink those teeth into a vulnerable area. Marbled cats have large canines compared to their body size. Why? My hypothesis is because they hunt in the trees they need a quick kill to minimise potential danger from becoming unbalanced but, I’m not a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group (not even an honourary one, I asked…) So I don’t know for sure. They’re just…Ooh, not to sound weird but…Bite me! (Credit: Zoochat, used without permission)

I’m wondering if it’s not a similar phenomenon, but under different pressures, that we’re seeing in cats like the clouded leopard and the marbled cat. They’re not up in the trees hunting wildebeest, are they!? So they hardly need those long teeth for tackling much larger, stronger prey. But they are hunting up in the trees where any minor upset of balance could be dangerous. As an arboreal hunter a quick kill is essential for maintaining your control and your balance, removing the ability and agency of the prey creature to move around and thus force you to move. This is especially important for cats who use their forelimbs, their upper-body, to ‘catch’ the prey.

I think we’ve discussed this when talking about wolves, or possibly the feliformiae, but feline species tend to have incredibly muscular forelimbs and front-body because they are pouncers, they use the weight of their upper-body and the strength of their paws to drag their prey down and hold it in place to get the kill. Canine species tend to have much stronger head and neck muscles because they grab their prey in their jaws.

What that means for a species like our marbled cat is two of the limbs it requires for balance are going to be out of commission for hunting purposes. The longer that stays the case the more dangerous for the cat. So having slightly larger teeth, with a better chance of penetrating something vital, severing a main vein or artery, a spinal column or brain stem or just puncturing the heart or lungs – that’s a huge plus! The quicker the kill, the lower the danger.

Kitten tax? It’s got the rounded ears, small head, chonky, long tail…The markings are hard to distinguish but it sort of looks marbled-cattish. There is a larger individual walking off in front, making this likely a young…Is this a marbled cat kitten? (Credit: KN Timsina, used without permission)

It’s pure speculation, but it’s a good idea about the process of how, biologically, we puzzle out the shapes, sizes and bodies of animals. I have said many times, evolution keeps nothing by accident. It is either not harmful or beneficial. If it were detrimental it would very quickly be selected out. There is a reason the marbled cat has disproportionately large canine teeth. My hunch is that they are a very arboreal species (as already indicated by large paws (for balance and grip) the colour of the coat (for camouflage in the leaves) and their long, thick tail (for counterbalance)) and thus they have evolved those teeth because they kill quickly, ensuring the shortest possible time for potentially balance-affecting fights that could put the cat in danger.

What’s their specific range and distribution then? Well they skirt the foothills of the Himalayas into the jungles of Southeast Asian, down into Thailand, Vietnam, into Malaysia, Indonesia and Borneo. I’ll put a map, I always put the map!

Yay! Map! The range and distribution of the marbled cat. As you can see, quite widespread with Borneo (bottom right) and the jungles of Myanmar into China (top centre) being major havens for these cats. Based upon 2016 IUCN data. (Credit: BhagyaMani CC-BY-SA 4.0)

The range and surprising connectedness of the range means they are only near threatened according to the IUCN. Unfortunately for this little cute cat the forests of Southeast Asia are in decline mainly for human exploitation. Either building works, human habitations or agriculture. They are also captured by snaring and are sold as meat, and for their pelts and bones. There is even a record of one being hunted by an indigenous tribe in India and being used as a sacrifice for goodwill and protection. However it was caught by laying noose traps, thus rather indiscriminate and with implications on the other, potentially more endangered wildlife, in the area.

The marbled cat is as beautiful as it is enigmatic. I’m going to have a lot of ‘used without permission’ images for this one, it is so rarely spotted. But it gives us pause for thought (or paws for thought!) that, if cats can be so small, so elusive – with the damage we’ve done over the last few hundred years, what species have already slipped us by? How many cats have gone extinct over the last couple of thousand years of human dominance over our natural world that maybe one day we’ll find a skull of, if we find any clue at all?

One of the counter-arguments to conservation efforts is that life changes, it adapts, species go extinct all the time. The problem is species now are going extinct at an alarming rate and with specific, causal links to human activity. We are driving this extinction. Yes, we could argue that humans are just as much a part of nature and we’re just dominant. We’re also smart enough to see the literal value of biodiversity, of having multiple different species. The more we learn about the natural world the more we learn of its complex interdependencies. Nothing exists alone, nothing can exist alone. Humans, for all their ego and arrogance, seem determined to try! But life needs life.

A marbled cat doing what marbled cats do best. Look at the ease on which it sits on this narrow branch. Those big feet giving it a solid grip, that tail fluttering gently as a counterbalance. This is a hyperarboreal cat, if you wanted to put together a custom cat for the tree-life, this is it! It’s incredible. There is something special about seeing an animal do what it is supposed to in the habitat in which it is supposed to be doing it. (Credit: Karen Povey, used without permission)

We’re often just wilfully ignorant of the necessity of this fact. It is not profitable for us to see the world like that. Conservationists are not trying to freeze evolution and stop all biological change from happening. The biological community is probably more aware than anyone else of the inevitable fate of all species. What conservation is trying to do is get humans to slow down their mass destruction so we can get a snapshot of life as it is now, not only for our own sakes, to figure out what species drive ecosystems, what are the ‘keystone’ species, what mutualisms and relationships are there, how best to protect ourselves and our natural world; but as a slice-of-life, as a biodiversity portfolio for future generations so they can see how life has changed and has adapted and so they may have a better understanding of how and why those adaptations occur.

Species like the kodkod, or the marbled cat, small species, hard to spot, shy, rare, tiny – They don’t earn our attention nearly as much as the big, scary lions and tigers. Yet in many ways they are far more indicative of healthy ecosystems, of diversity, of life blossoming. Learning about them and their lives is just as important, if not more so given how understudied they are.

From a motion-activated camera trap in Thailand – the elusive marbled cat, the gorgeous marbled pelage quite striking on this one and the glint off the tapetum lucidum, the film that reflects light back onto the light receptors in the eyes, allowing these cats to slink about at night with relative ease. Oh what I wouldn’t give to go out and catch a glimpse of one of these in the lamplight on a humid, Asian forest night. (Credit: eMammal CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

And with that I have covered at least one cat from every extant feline clade! Next week, I promise, we’ll do an extinct lion. I’m not sure which one yet so let me know if you’d prefer European cave lion or American lion.

Want to fit more cat into your Caturday? We’ve got a boopload of articles screaming “Check meowt!”

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 StoryProailurus 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.
Caturday Special: The Fishing Cat – It’s a cat that loves to fish. An adorable little kitto from Asia.

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Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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