Small stature won’t stop the feisty rustyspotted cat from taking over the trees when night falls
Saving Earth’s smallest feline
Catch a glimpse through thick Indian forest and you’d think you’d spotted a particularly adventurous house cat looking for a meal. Get lucky and see it again and you’d begin to realise a few things weren’t quite as you expected with this little hunter: a streaked head, rounded ears and spots all over its body.
This is the rusty-spotted cat, Asia’s smallest wildcat and one that ties with the black-footed cat of southern Africa for the title of world’s smallest cat. Barely tipping the scales with a maximum weight of just 1.7 kilograms (3.7 pounds), this tiny feline is only half the weight of the average domestic cat.
There are two subspecies of rustyspotted cat – one native to India and recently observed in Nepal, and the other found on the island of Sri Lanka. Cats living in India usually make their homes in deciduous forests, scrubland and grassland, while members of the Sri Lankan subspecies tend to stick to forests in and around the mountains.
Both subspecies prefer areas with dense undergrowth; these cats are extremely reclusive and private, seeking out cover and working hard to avoid being seen. Agile climbers, rusty-spotted cats scramble up trees at impressive speed if something startles or threatens them
on the ground; thanks to their agility in the trees, they’ve earned the nickname ‘hummingbird of the cat world’.
A nocturnal lifestyle helps the rustyspotted cat to maintain its privacy.
Sleeping through the day in hollow logs and caves when many other animals are awake and wandering between the trees, the cats can emerge fully rested at sunset to set off in search for their prey. they’re not fussy; they will pounce on any rodent, bird, reptile, frog or insect small enough to be taken down by their tiny claws. Sneaking through the trees with their patterned coat and the cover of darkness keeping them hidden also allows the cats to avoid the attention of larger predators in the area.
It’s not just humans and predators that rusty-spotted cats avoid; they really don’t like the company of other members of their species either. they’re solitary and aggressive for the majority of the year, with females only tolerating males during their five-day oestrus. Such an unusually short oestrus and brief mating period probably evolved for the safety of females, as they’re at much greater risk of predation during breeding season.
“It’s not just humans and predators that rusty-spotted cats avoid; they don’t like other members of their species either”
Once the males have been sent on their way, expectant mothers prepare dens and give birth to kittens – usually one or two – after two months. Kittens are born with rows of black spots and don’t develop the distinctive rusty patches until they reach maturity at about 68 weeks old. Eye colour changes too; newborns have blue eyes, but these change to a grey or amber hue as they grow.
Since 2016, the rusty-spotted cat has been classified as Near threatened on the IuCN Red List. the main threat to the survival of the species is the destruction
“there are thought to be fewer than 10,000 wild rusty-spotted cats left today, but no one can be sure”
and fragmentation of its habitat. As India and Sri Lanka develop and try to provide for growing populations, large expanses of forest are being logged or cleared for agriculture. Many of these cats live in already isolated mountainous forest, so breaking up expanses of vegetation makes it even harder for them to locate mates when they’re ready to breed.
they can also find themselves in danger if they venture onto farms and steal animals, and their skins and meat are occasionally found for sale despite hunting and trade being banned.
With increased proximity to human settlements, there’s also concern over interbreeding with domestic cats.
Conservation of this species is difficult because of the cats’ elusive nature. there are thought to be fewer than 10,000 wild rusty-spotted cats left today, but no one can be sure; since they live in remote locations and are so hard to spot it’s almost impossible to give an estimate of the number remaining in the wild and the number of kittens being born each year. Rusty-spotted cats are protected by law, but without accurate information about their ranges and movements it’s hard to know where to focus conservation efforts.
Advice is being given to people who own domestic cats in areas where rusty-spotted cats live to try and reduce interbreeding. In addition to a population at Sri Lanka’s Colombo Zoo, several institutions in Europe now house rusty-spotted cats and, while they’re not the easiest animals to breed, there’s hope that a breeding programme will provide some protection for the future and the genetic integrity of the species.
things look uncertain for this hunter, but organisations are working hard to preserve it; hopefully a lucky few will be catching glimpses of the hummingbird of the cat world for many years to come.
Left With their small bodies and powerful limbs, rusty-spotted cats are agile animals
beLow Breeding programmes have been established to try and preserve the species
Above This species Latin name translates roughly as ‘Life: rusted’