Species Fact: The Marbled Cat


Tigers get all the conservation attention, and they need it. But smaller cats have been showing up in Tiger Country, too, since camera-trapping became a thing in the 1990s.

Like this marbled cat:



That’s an excerpt from one of the recent rainforest videos.


Why does the cat need such thick, fluffy fur in an equatorial rainforest?

No one knows.

That long tail is probably handy for maintaining balance during a chase through the tree tops, but why is it so bushy, and why do marbled cats hold it out straight, horizontal to the ground when walking?

No one knows.

Is this fierce-looking feline one of the big cats?

Now that they’ve finally figured out. And the answer came as quite a surprise.

Scientific name:

Pardofelis marmorata.

Lineage:

Bay cat.

Zoologists long suspected that marbled cats, which are only a little bigger than a house cat, are related to the other big cat in this part of the world: the clouded leopard.

The resemblance is amazing:



Besides being big cats, clouded leopards have this guy in common with tigers.


Marbled cats and clouded leopards both have blotched fur, an unusually long tail (though the clouded leopard’s isn’t bushy), oversized fangs, and extra-large paws that provide sure footing on branches.

Despite appearances, though, genetic studies show that marbled cats aren’t miniature clouded leopards.

They’re more closely related to two of their small neighbors in this part of Southeast Asia: the Borneo bay cat and the Asiatic golden cat (both of whom we’ll meet in coming weeks).

Data:

These are from the Cat Specialist Group website, except for the coat description, from several sources (listed at end of post).

Lefteris Papaulakis/Shutterstock
  • Coat: I don’t know why those blotches are called “marbling” in one cat and “clouds” in the other, but both marbled cats and clouded leopards are well-adapted to hunting in trees. Perhaps it’s a camouflage thing that each line evolved on its own.

    Or, since both species are among the oldest members of the cat family, the blotches might be the last surviving remnant of primitive feline coat patterns. (Werdelin et al.)

    On marbled cats, the blotches turn into small dark spots on the legs, tail, and parts of the head, while underparts are usually a pale buff color. The cats finish off their dramatic look with dark “racing stripes” that start just above the inner corner of their eyes and travel over the top of the head and down the neck.

    A few melanistic, i.e., black, marbled cats have been reported.

  • Weight: 5 to 11 pounds.
  • Body length: 18 to 24 inches.
  • Tail length: 14 to 22 inches.
  • Average litter size: 1 to 2 cubs.
  • Average life span: Up to 12 years in captivity.

Features unique to this cat:

Marbled cats have an unusual combination of small- and big-cat physical characteristics. Too little is known about these wild cats for experts to understand how this came to be.

Also, marbled cats have 180-degree ankle joints, allowing them to use their hind feet for control as they come down a tree head first.


Most cats cannot do this. (Image: Johan Embreus, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Clouded leopards and a New World cat (the margay) are the only other cats with this feature.

And clouded leopards and the marbled cat are the only members of family Felidae with that beautiful blotchy coat patterning.

Where found in the wild:

Marbled cats cover a broad geographic range but their populations are small and isolated. (Image: BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Not a lot is known about this elusive cat yet, but it has been seen from Nepal and northeastern India all the way to Yunnan Province in western China, and southward through Indochina to Sumatra and Borneo.

Ancestral marbled cats didn’t necessarily have to swim to the Greater Sunda Islands. To get there, they probably crossed Sundaland (shown in lighter blue on this map) when it was all dry land, not just its highest points.

Sundaland dries out whenever sea level drops, say, during an ice age.

Closest cat-family relatives:

We’ve already mentioned the other two cats most closely related to marbled cats: the Borneo bay cat and Asiatic golden cat (there’s an African golden cat, too, but it’s in the caracal lineage, along with servals).

Marbled cats are the oldest members of the bay cat lineage, just as servals are the oldest cats in the caracal group.

Why bring in a bunch of African cats? Just to show how complex the evolution of cats really is.

Everyone agrees that the big cats evolved first, though many details about that development remain unanswered.

Per a study by Johnson et al. (see source list), the next group to evolve was the bay cat lineage, but Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds believe it was the caracal group, followed closely by the bay cat branch.

Either way, it looks like servals and marbled cats are probably the oldest small cats in existence.

How marbled cats hunt and live:

This is where our lack of knowledge about marbled cats really shows.

They’re certainly adapted to moving around in trees, and being smaller than clouded leopards, they probably take small prey like squirrels and other rodents, as well as birds and the occasional lizard or insect.

However, there is very little field data to back that up. Marbled cats just aren’t seen often enough to make many general statements about them.

Camera traps are set up on the ground, and that is where most marbled cats have been observed, poking around or moving from point A to point B for some reason.



Or just sitting around yawning. I have embedded the whole video of these Indonesian park camera-trap shots, not just the cats (who come in around 1:10), so you can get an idea of the marbled cat’s whole world. I think that first cat is a clouded leopard. The seated yawner at around 1:20 is definitely a marbled cat — look at how bushy and long its tail is.


Very little is known about the rest of their life, on the ground or in the trees. Researchers aren’t even sure yet whether marbled cats are day hunters, night hunters, or dawn/dusk prowlers!

And when they do finally learn the basic facts, the boffins will need to study how marbled cats fit into an ecosystem with other cats.

Depending on where you are in Indonesia, for example, these might include tigers, clouded leopards, Asiatic golden cats, flat-headed cats, bay cats, and/or leopard cats (unrelated to the big cat, and in fact, the most common small cat in Asia).

It isn’t impossible to figure this out.

Sunarto et al., in one study, found in a study of central Sumatran cats that clouded leopards and marbled cats (the local tree specialists) may be sharing the resources by hunting at different times and going after different-sized prey, while leopard cats and marbled cats (closest in body size) seem to divvy things up by using different microhabitats at different elevations above sea level, as well as through time sharing.

But a lot more research is needed on marbled cats, and on small wild cats in general.

How they reproduce:

Again, there is very little information available. In captivity, gestation lasts 70 to 80 days, and the kittens weigh 2 to 3 ounces at birth. Their eyes open in the first two weeks, and by 2 months the youngsters start taking solid foods.

Generally only one marbled cat at a time is seen, but pairs have been reported. No one knows whether these were mating pairs or a couple of siblings.

It takes almost two years for the marbled cat to reach sexual maturity.

Interactions with people:

Some indigenous people use marbled cats in rituals, and this species is sometimes hunted, both legally and illegally. (P. marmorata is protected in much of its range, but not all of it.)

Surprisingly, the pelts aren’t that common in the fur trade.

Marbled cats do indulge in occasional poultry raids, which leads to retaliation sometimes.

Fossil relatives:

None have been found.

Red-listed?

The IUCN lists marbled cats as Near Threatened. They were downlisted from Vulnerable in 2008 because camera-trap information showed that there were more adult cats than originally believed and the population, while declining, wasn’t in an alarming freefall.

There wasn’t complete agreement on this move, though.

Conservationists still need to learn much more about marbled cats, how hunting is affecting their numbers, and how well they can tolerate human changes to their environment like logging and the spread of oil palm plantations.


Sources:

Cat Specialist Group. 2019. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=122 Last accessed July 3, 2019.

Hearn, A. J.; Ross, J.; Bernard, H.; Bakar, S. A.; and others. 2016. The first estimates of marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata population density from Bornean primary and selectively logged forest. PLoS One, 11(3): e0151046.

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.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Luo, S. J.; Zhang, Y.; Johnson, W. E.; Miao, L.; and others. 2014. Sympatric Asian felid phylogeography reveals a major Indochinese–Sundaic divergence. Molecular Ecology, 23(8): 2072-2092.

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.

McCarthy, J. L.; Wibisono, H. T.; McCarthy, K. P.; Fuller, T. K.; and Andayani, N. 2015. Assessing the distribution and habitat use of four felid species in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park, Sumatra, Indonesia. Global Ecology and Conservation, 3: 210-221.

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.

Ross, J.; Brodie, J.; Cheyne, S.; Datta, A.; and others. 2016. Pardofelis marmorata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T16218A97164299. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/16218/97164299

Sunarto, S.; Kelly, M. J.; Parakkasi, K.; and Hutajulu, M. B. 2015. Cat coexistence in central S umatra: ecological characteristics, spatial and temporal overlap, and implications for management. Journal of Zoology, 296(2): 104-115.

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. Marbled cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marbled_cat Last accessed July 3, 2019.




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