A cat that resembles a wolf with leopard spots?
Naturalist superstar Pliny the Elder thought so, back in the 1st century AD:
It was at the games of Pompeius Magnus that the chama was first exhibited, an animal called rufius by the Gauls, having the figure of a wolf, with the spots of the pard [an old word for leopard] . . .These animals have not been seen at Rome since that time.
It makes you wonder if they were ever truly seen in the first place.
Well, they were. Pliny the Elder, author of the multi-volume Natural History, was not an airhead. Still, the nature of this beast — in the original Latin, a chaum — is unknown.
Since Pliny listed it with other cats, historians suspect it might have been a lynx of some sort.
In any case, when 18th-century European taxonomists first saw a lynx-like jungle cat, in the Caucasus, they used Pliny’s term, not the cat’s local moniker kirmyschak.
Due to an earlier transcription error, though, chaum was now chaus.
That’s okay. This bold little cat, which does not live in jungles, takes all misnomers in stride — and it has very long legs.
Substituting this zoomed-in shaky video for the Roman naturalist’s very brief encounter (in a crowded venue) with an unfamiliar animal, the wolf/leopard thing makes a little more sense.
These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted.
- Weight: 11 to 20 pounds, but per Heptner and Sludskii (see source list at end of post) Chaus sometimes reaches 26 pounds or more.
- Overall size: Somewhat larger than a house cat overall, but slimmer.
- Body length: 23 to 30 inches.
- Tail length: 8 to 11 inches.
- Coat: Sparse and rough. (Heptner and Sludskii) Youngsters have spots, as do some adults (like the one shown in the video up above), but the typical fully grown jungle cat’s fur is a solid reddish brown to grayish-yellow, with lighter underparts as well as some dark markings on its legs and tail, and occasionally on the tummy.
- Vocals: “. . . [M]ew calls . . . are mostly short . . . and usually uttered in a series . . . ” (Peters et al.); in other words, Chaus barks, though not like a dog. Heptner and Sludskii describe it as a slightly deeper meow than the domestic cat’s.
- Average litter size: 3 to 4 kittens.
- Average life span: 9 to 10 years; up to 20 years, per Wikipedia, in captivity.
Features unique to this cat:
- Chaus is the largest member of the Felis lineage, and one of the oldest, if not the oldest (phylogenetic study results vary a little bit).
- The beautiful stance is unique, too. As Heptner and Sludskii put it, jungle cats stand tall on their legs.
- They also have a peculiar sway as they run, if you happen to see one in motion at a distance.
- Jungle cat tracks are distinctive: much bigger across than a house cat’s or wildcat’s, about 2 to 2.5 inches, with widely separated toes.
Some unusual, though not unique, characteristics include a love of water. The most accurate names for Chaus are “reed cat” and “swamp cat,” because wetlands are where you usually find it.
While able to chase down prey, climb trees, and do other traditional feline activities very well, Chaus also is good at swimming and diving for fish. (Perhaps those big feet make nice paddles?)
Jungle cats sometimes even build nests on floating patches of vegetation in marshes and ponds! (Heptner and Sludskii)
That sounds crazy, but it’s a very good security measure for self and kittens when the only alternative is open ground.
Other outstanding features are:
- Those long legs and black ear tufts (like a lynx)
- The short tail; it’s not quite as short as the lynx’s but enough so that jungle cats were called Catolynx for a while and today still are known as swamp lynxes in some places (note: as we’ll see in my upcoming book on the cat family, true lynxes actually have their own lineage).
- An ability to live near people and adapt to human landscapes. Chaus has never been domesticated, but it’s one of the few wild cats that don’t mind a human presence — as long as you keep your distance.
Where found in the wild:
Give Chaus lots of water and good cover — say, reeds or dense undergrowth (not a jungle-like closed-canopy forest) — and it will be happy in many different settings.
Jungle cats maintain a patchy Eurasian presence from the Middle East to Southeast Asia (where they’re extremely scarce) and north into the Himalayan foothills and southern Russia, but they’re very common in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Egypt is the only African location where you’ll see Chaus in the wild, and then only rarely in the Nile Valley and at a few oases.
Closest cat-family relatives:
Molecular markers and cladograms are useful for identifying the cat family’s eight lineages, but there’s not much agreement in various studies as to how cats within each lineage are related to one another.
Nevertheless, it does appear that Chaus’s closest Felis relative is the black-footed cat, Felis nigripes, even though this tiny cat (we’ll meet it next week) hangs out today thousands of miles away, in southern Africa.
Famous jungle cats:
Fame doesn’t come to many small wild cats. However, laypeople who already have heard of this species know it as the wild half of hybrid fancy-cats like the Chausie.
Zoologists are also aware of England’s Hayling Island jungle cat.
It was struck by a car and killed in the summer of 1998. What makes it famous, and so puzzling, is that jungle cats haven’t ranged into the British Isles since the last ice age ended. No one knows how it, and another unfortunate Chaus found later, got to Hayling Island.
There have been sightings, too, of jungle cats in this part of the world. These and the Hayling Island cats are probably captives that escaped, perhaps from Chausie breeding programs.
Of note, much of the UK is acceptable habitat for jungle cats. The Gulf Stream flows nearby, moderating winter temperatures enough, for example, to allow palm trees to grow in Dublin.
All that jungle cats require, besides prey, are water, good cover, and a moderate climate. The UK has it all:
THERE ’s a quiet place where I often go
When the sun is in the west,
And the evening breezes, as they blow
O’er the trees above and the lake below,
Seem sighing themselves to rest;
Where under the bank beneath the feet
There lies a hidden well;
Where the hanging boughs the waters meet,
And the moor-hen finds a safe retreat,
And the white swan loves to dwell.
For there have I heard the cuckoo’s call,
And the lay of the nightingale,
The cooing of doves in the tree-tops tall,
And the distant sound of the waterfall
Come creeping up the vale.
. . .
I have seen the water smooth as glass,
Or the ripples o’er it fleet,
When the winds that move it as they pass
Bear the scent of dew-besprinkled grass
And the odor of flowers sweet.
I have watched the shades of twilight glide
Over the peaceful scene,
Till the stars stole forth on the heavens wide,
And the moonbeams fell on the tranquil tide
In floods of silver sheen.
— from William Blake Atkinson’s poem about Mongewell, an Oxfordshire village
Chaus would enjoy this setting (and its birds), too.
Jungle cats also hybridize with other Felis cats, as the cat fancy already knows. This could complicate ongoing conservation efforts to protect Scotland’s native wildcat.
We’ll just have to wait and see whether Chaus, thanks to people, really has established a sustainable population so far from its present Southern Eurasian/Egyptian stomping grounds.
How jungle cats hunt and live:
Rodents are the preferred menu item, with a single jungle cat consuming an estimated 1,500 of them each year.
Chaus also has a taste for birds. Indeed, overwintering birds in Russia’s year-round open waters support a number of jungle cats at the northernmost edge of their range.
Unfortunately, Chaus also goes after poultry. This, of course, leads to a lot of conflict with local farmers and has contributed to a decline in jungle cat numbers in some areas.
Chaus is big enough to take somewhat larger prey, too, including fawns, wild pigs, and some gazelles. But it’s not large enough to be safe from leopards and big snakes — its two worst natural enemies.
There is some discrepancy in the sources on whether jungle cats are primarily nocturnal or active day and night. They do stalk-and-ambush hunting just like most other cats, but as mentioned, they also fish in streams and ponds, as well as swim away from approaching threats.
How they reproduce:
You might want to have some coffee before watching this video — that one kitten will put you right to sleep! Note the ear tufts and spots.
Very little research has been done on jungle cats. They apparently do have a breeding season, when both males and females can be heard barking, but Mom often has two litters a year.
Gestation takes a little more than two months, and the kittens weigh between 1 and 2 ounces at birth. Their eyes open at around 10 to 13 days, and they’re fully weaned at age 3 months.
The spots on the kittens shown above are fading but still present. Those little jungle cats probably aren’t 6 months old yet, which is when they’ll start catching their own prey.
At age 8 or 9 months, they’ll be ready to leave the nest and support themselves.
No one knows very much about how jungle cats divide up territory.
Heptner and Sludskii do say that family groups have been seen, and a number of sources report that, at least in captivity, fathers are very protective of their kittens.
This is quite different from the usual feline “let Mom do it alone” approach to having and raising kittens.
Interactions with people:
Jungle cats are not shy around people, and a few of them were tamed in Ancient Egypt. Some were mummified, too, but not very many compared to the millions of domesticated cats that were held sacred to the goddess Bastet.
Unlike many wild cats, Chaus can adapt, to some extent, when human activities break up its habitat. But the same unwary attitude that takes it across fields, through irrigation ditches, and into fish ponds also leads it into traps (not always those set for it) and hunter ambushes.
Yes, overall as Least Concern because of its large population in India and some other parts of South Asia. However, Chaus has almost vanished in the western and eastern extremes of its range, and conservationists are calling for more research on the jungle cat’s status in these areas, particularly in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, wherever it finds itself, Chaus carries on, just taking one day at a time . . .
Edited May 3, 2019.
Featured image: Soumyajit Nandy via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Cat Specialist Group. n. d. Jungle Cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=114 Last accessed April 22, 2019.
Gray, T.N.E., Timmins, R.J., Jathana, D., Duckworth, J.W., Baral, H. & Mukherjee, S. 2016. Felis chaus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T8540A50651463.
Heptner, V. G., and Sludskii, A. A. 1972. Mammals of the Soviet Union, volume II, part 2: Carnivora (hyaenas and cats). Moscow: Vysshaya Shkola Publishers. English translation by Rao, P.M., 1992. General editor: Kothekar, V. S. New Delhi: Amerind Publishing. https://archive.org/details/mammalsofsov221992gept
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