Caturday Special: The Rusty-Spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus)

How can you not love it!? Look at that adorable tiny head with those almost lime-green eyes. These cats are something special. (Credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

KITTEN TAX! A cat-bagel of a rusty-spotted cat at Parc des Félins in France (Still haven’t been, definitely want to go. It’s literally the Park of Cats!) This one is young and still has distinctive spotted marking that fade and become the ‘rusty’ spots the cat is named for as they age. (Credit: Abujoy by GFDL)

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.

50% of their face-space is taken up with EYES! They’re just such beautiful little cats. Clearly, with eyes like that, a predominately crepuscular or nocturnal hunter. They are not observed to be very active in the day. (Credit: Joachim S. Müller CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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.

A really good shot for showing the trademark pelage (the coat and colours) of the rusty-spotted cat. If you noticed the dark spots on the kitten in the photo above you can barely notice these small, redder blotches on this adult. The characteristic rusty spots. Meanwhile a few streaks across the head and a little bit of eye make up, as well as spots on the breast and – always seemingly – one stripe across the chest. This is textbook rusty-spotted cat marking. (Credit: Davidvraju CC-BY-SA 4.0)

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!

KITTEN TAX! A kitten of this age (only 11 days) is likely NEVER seen in the wild. The adult cats are elusive enough. This one was being hand-reared in captivity, likely due to rejection by the mother or other complication. It’s so tiny, so frail and fragile and so precious. (Credit: sooty mangabey via Zoochat)

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.

They are one of those cats with almost effortless poise and grace. The kind of body-control it takes humans years of gymnastics training to get anywhere close to and they just…have it! You can see those long, springform back legs, perfect for pouncing. The surprising thickness of the upper forelimb and shoulders – again cats are pounce predators, they restrain their prey with their front-legs so they have to be comparatively strong. That muzzle is just there for the kill, slowly suffocate or puncture or sever something vital with those fangs, those sharp canines. Ooh I do love cats! (Credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

AN ACTUAL WILD SHOT! Very rare to find a free-licence one, particularly of elusive species such as this. This was taken in the Anaimalai Hills, a mountainous region around Tamil Nadu and Kerala in Southern India. The remarkable reflection off the tapetum lucidum – the reflective film that reflects light back onto the light receptors in the eyes, shows another sign of the noturnal or low-light nature of this cat’s activity. (Credit: Shankar Raman and Divya Mudappa, NCF, Mysore – CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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.

Save the generic Wikimedia image for last, this time! I wish there was something for scale because I’ve seen one of these cats in captivity and they really are tiny. It’s hard, in all of these images, to get a good scale for that. We are looking about half the size and weight of a domestic cat. Again, for as sand, grass and scrub adapted as that coat-colour may seem they are also known to inhabit deciduous forests. (Credit: Davidvraju, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

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.

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.
Caturday Special: The Marbled Cat – A beautiful Asian cat of the Bay-Cat lineage that completes a write up of a cat species from every extant cat clade and that discusses the smaller, little known cats and why they are worth study.
Caturday Special: The Eurasian Cave Lion – A prehistoric beauty, around 10-15% bigger than the modern, African lion and as fearsome as it was admirable. Lions and humans emerged from Africa together and have a strong, cultural bond as a result. Like competing brothers.
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!

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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