Rusty, The World’s Smallest Cat


Okay, it may not be quite this twee . . .



. . . but southern Asia’s rusty-spotted cat, as a full-grown adult, is half the size of a house cat, and it really does rival Africa’s black-footed cat for the title of “smallest cat in the world.”

Scientific name(s):

Prionailurus rubiginosus.

Lineage:

Leopard cat.

Data:

These are from the Cat Specialist Group website unless otherwise indicated.

If I close my eyes, you can’t see me. (Image: Davidvraju via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Weight: 2 to 4 pounds.
  • Body length: 14 to 19 inches.
  • Tail length: 8 to 10 inches.
  • Coat: This wild shorthair’s coat typically has a reddish fawn-gray background color, with elongated pale brown or — yes — rusty-colored spots. However, in some parts of India and Sri Lanka, the spots are dark brown to black. Rusty also typically has a couple of dark lines along its cheeks, as well as four stripes that start just above the eyes and run across the top of the cat’s head to its neck. Underparts show white fur that’s spotted and has dark bars. The tail has some faint rings.
  • Average litter size: 1 to 3.
  • Average life span: Up to 18 years in captivity (though Rusty doesn’t do well in zoos). Mukherjee et al. estimate a 10-year life span in the wild.

Features unique to this cat:

  • Rusty is the smallest cat in Asia
  • It’s one of the few cat species to have black paw pads.

Where found in the wild:

BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Biologists used to think that rusty-spotted cats could only be found in southern India and Sri lanka; they now know that these little felines have a wider range and may be somewhat more numerous than previously assumed.

It’s well worth noting that, in some of this region’s refuges, you can see both Rusty and the world’s biggest cats in the wild, but you’ll have to be VERY lucky to spot either one.

Look for Rusty in central India, Nepal, and possibly also Pakistan. Perhaps other places will be added — researchers are still out there, looking.

Closest cat-family relatives:

Per genetic analysis, rusty-spotted cats may be the oldest member of the leopard cat lineage (which is a sister-group to the domestic cat’s lineage).

It all depends on where you want to put Manul, the Pallas cat.

Age estimates for the rusty-spotted cat go back either some four million years to the early Pliocene (Johnson et al., who also say that Manul belongs in the leopard cat line and is a little older than Rusty) or farther — some six and a half million years — to the late Miocene (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds, who give Manul its own lineage, leaving Rusty as the oldest member of its line).

Either way, rusty-spotted cats are way older than the ice ages.


Rusty, giving us the multi-million-year-old stare. (Image: Vladimir Wrangel, Shutterstock)

Of note, this ancient species shares its range with jungle cats — the oldest member of the Felis lineage.

How rusty-spotted cats hunt and live:



Not a lot is known about this agile little kitty yet.

It’s often seen in trees, but the Cat Specialist Group reports that it probably hunts on the ground.

Other than that, a brief online review of science papers through Google Scholar suggests that conservation biologists are still mostly at the “we found one!” stage.

They’re making some progress, though.

Besides finding out that Rusty is more widespread than once thought, researchers now are fairly sure that the little cat’s prime habitat is dry and moist deciduous forest, though it also has been seen in tropical thornscrub, rocky terrain, and a few other habitats.

But much more needs to be filled in about the rusty-spotted cat’s ecology and behavior.

No one is even sure what prey it lives on, though there are reports of this hypercarnivore feeding on rodents, birds, frogs and other small animals. (Cat Specialist Group)



Checking out camera people apparently is also an option. By the way, this is extremely sedate behavior for a rusty-spotted cat.


Rusty comes out mostly at night, which might be why it has such big eyes.

You’d think such a tiny cat would prefer the day, since huge night hunters like the Gir Forest’s lions and India’s Bengal tigers are around.



Here is Rusty, rather successfully hiding from spotlights in the Gir Forest Preserve.


But if it came out in daytime, sunlight would clearly reveal this wee kitty to all sorts of predators. Best to move in darkness and keep a low profile!

Such nocturnal behavior, as well as small size and the cat’s preference for dense vegetation and other inaccessible areas, make rusty-spotted cats very difficult to study in the wild.

So, if you’re ever lucky enough to see one, be sure to let the boffins know.

How they reproduce:

Again, there isn’t much information available about this. Litters generally have from 1 to 3 kittens. (Cat Specialist Group) Newborns weigh 2 to 3 ounces and take about a year and a half to mature. (Wikipedia)

Interactions with people:

A few have been tamed, despite their hyperactive fierceness, but rusty-spotted cats don’t do well in zoos. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

This apparently is one of the few wild cats that can tolerate being around us, though. Females with kittens have been found on Indian tea plantations, in house attics, and even on the outskirts of Bangalore City!

However, conservationists would like to know a lot more about Rusty’s adaptability to human-dominated landscapes.

Fossil relatives:

No rusty-spotted cat fossils have been identified yet. (Werdelin et al.)

Red-listed?

Yes, as Near Threatened. This is a downlisting from Vulnerable, Rusty’s earlier Red List classification, thanks to the ongoing “we found one!” fieldwork.

However, Mukherjee et al. report:

The absence of any earlier systematic survey makes it difficult to gauge if populations have declined, increased or are stable . . . a future decline of 20-25% over the next three generations is suspected, occurring primarily due to projected habitat loss in central India, with populations stable only in protected areas and little information available about the small proportion of the population found in Sri Lanka.


Featured image: Vladimir Wrangel, Shutterstock


Sources:

Aditya, V., and Ganesh, T. 2016. Camera trap records of Rusty-spotted Cat Prionailurus rubiginosus and Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) from Papikonda National Park, northern Eastern Ghats, India. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 8(5): 8818-8819.

Cat Specialist Group. n. d. Rusty-spotted cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=120 Last accessed June 1, 2019.

Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science, 311:73-77.

Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; and others. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/32616/A_revised_Felidae_Taxonomy_CatNews.pdf

Macdonald, D. W.; Loveridge, A. J.; and Nowell, K. 2010b. Dramatis personae: An introduction to the wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 3-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mukherjee, S.; Duckworth, J. W.; Silva, A.; Appel, A.; and Kittle, A. 2016. Prionailurus rubiginosus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016:e.T18149A50662471.

Nyakatura, K., and Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology. 10:12.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wikipedia. 2019. Rusty-spotted cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rusty-spotted_cat Last accessed May 17, 2019.




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