Species Facts: The Leopard Cat


Wild cats react in different ways to us and to our modifications of the natural world.

Marbled cats, for instance, have been seen walking along the boundary between an oil palm plantation and the rainforest but never among the planted trees.

The leopard cat takes our disturbances of the natural landscape in stride. This feline species may even have been domesticated briefly in China, several thousand years ago!



Despite this adorable behavior, Sunquist and Sunquist (see source list) note leopard cats are said to be the most difficult Asian wild cat to tame. A few individuals, introduced to people at a very young age, can be sociable. But even these are too wild to ever become house pets.


Scientific name:

Prionailurus bengalensis.

There’s a lot of discussion about subspecies because the appearance of this widespread cat varies a lot by region.

The major difference in common names for this beautiful animal has been drawn between leopard cats in the Russian Far East, Korean peninsula, parts of China, and on some northern islands — all known as the “Amur forest cat” — and those closer to the Equator, which are called “Bengal cats.”

They are, nevertheless, all P. bengalensis.

Of note, an isolated population on Japan’s Iriomote Island used to be considered a separate feline species; however, genetic testing has shown that “Iriomote cats” are leopard cats, too.

Lineage:

Leopard cat.

I’m not sure how taxonomists name these things. It’s not by age — depending on which authority you check, either the rusty-spotted cat or Manul is the oldest species in this lineage; leopard cats are relative newcomers. Perhaps it’s because leopard cats are the most frequently seen members of the group.

Data:

These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise mentioned.

The southern leopard cat. (Image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.5)
  • Weight: 4 to 18 pounds. Size of leopard cats varies tremendously by region. Animals in the north can be more than twice as large as those from tropical islands like Borneo. (Mohamed et al.)
  • Height at the shoulder: About 16 inches. (Wikipedia)
  • Body length: 18 to 26 inches.
  • Tail length: 8 to 12 years.
  • Coat: The adorable youngster shown frolicking with Mr. Cho up above displays the typical grayish brown coloring of leopard cats in the northern part of their range; closer to the equator, a leopard cat’s background color is more of a yellow brown to ocher and its markings are much darker. Other than that, their fur patterning is highly individualistic. Melanistic (black) leopard cats exist, too. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
  • Vocals: The same sounds you might expect from Fluffy: growls, hissing, spitting, meowing, purring, and gurgling, all used at close range for either friendly or antagonistic interactions. (Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia)
  • Average litter size: 2 to 3 kittens.
  • Average life span: Up to 13 years.

Features unique to this cat:

While not much is known yet about its life in the wild, P. bengalensis may be the only small Asian wild cat that benefits when people open up the native forest. However, no one knows how much disturbance leopard cats can handle. (Mohamed et al.)

It’s also the only native wild cat left in Japan (on Tsushima and Iriomote islands) and the Philippines. This may also be true in Taiwan, too, since clouded leopards haven’t been reported there for several decades.

Where found in the wild:

This map doesn’t show it but there are leopard cats on Borneo and, I think, Sumatra, too. (Image: BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Leopard cats have the broadest geographic distribution of any Asian cat. (As we’ll see in a later post, their namesake — the leopard, a member of the big cat lineage — holds the record for the whole cat family.)

It’s good to be flexible in terms of habitat and the amount of human changes to the landscape that you can tolerate.

Wherever there are enough trees nearby for cover, look for this “miniature leopard” from the Russian Far East southward into Indonesia, and from Pakistan, India, and Nepal across Southeast Asia to the Philippines. It’s only absent in Sri Lanka and central India, places that the rusty-spotted cat calls home. (Luo, 2014)

The northern part of its range is limited by snow cover — leopard cats can’t handle snow that’s more than about 4 inches deep.

Closest cat-family relatives:

Experts agree that the leopard cat lineage is the “sister group” to the domestic cat’s lineage — that is, group members like the rusty-spotted cat, flat-headed cat, and fishing cat (and, of course, the leopard cat itself) have more in common with Felis cats than with any other branch of the cat family tree.

However, Johnson et al. think that Manul also belongs with leopard cats, while Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds make Manul a separate “sister” to both Felis and leopard cat lineages.

How leopard cats hunt and live:

Cats generally are opportunistic and can adapt to just about any habitat and prey base. The leopard cat, perhaps, shows this better than any other species.

Like all cats, P. bengalensis is a stalk-and-ambush hunter, and it generally kills its prey with a neck bite (throat bites are typically used only by larger cats on their proportionately larger victims).

“I R cleerly napping, hoomanz. Go way.”–Leopard cat. (Image: Abujoy via Wikimedia, see license at link)

But beyond that, various studies describe leopard cats hunting at night, during the day, on the ground, up in trees — who knows how they spend their time?

The leopard cat’s prey base isn’t well understood, either.

Undoubtedly they do go after rodents, especially in Thailand and Borneo (Mohamed et al.), but other small mammals, like hares in the Russian Far East, may be important, too.

Leopard cats also reportedly like birds, lizards, fish, eels, and anything else they can get, including domestic poultry.

It’s difficult to study such an elusive creature in detail, even with camera trapping and radiocollar techniques, especially one as widespread as P. bengalensis.

The different study results show just how well leopard cats have adapted to a variety of habitats.

How they reproduce:

Ridho Illyasa, CC BY 2.0

Leopard cats breed year round everywhere except where there are clear-cut seasons. In such places, births tend to come in the early summer.

There are generally 2 to 3 kittens in a litter, born after a gestation of a little over two months. The newborns weigh 3 to 5 ounces and first open their eyes after about two weeks of life.

At this point they have doubled their weight and will continue growing quickly. By 37 weeks, they’re almost as big as Mom.

AND Dad. Leopard cats are one of the few feline species where males don’t usually kill cubs and sometimes even take an active role in raising the young.

Most of this information comes from captives. Very few observations of family units have been made in the wild, though leopard cat breeding populations have been documented in some plantations.

It’s still unknown how the young cats transition into adulthood and independence, but sightings suggest that leopard cats may follow the typical feline tendency for the males to go off to find their own territory while females settle down close to home.

Interactions with people:

The video earlier shows that these wild cats can, at a very young age, form bonds with human beings. After their first month of life, it’s not so easy (Sunquist and Sunquist), but leopard cats certainly handle living near us, as long as we leave them alone.

That’s why archaeologists were fascinated to discover some Neolithic Chinese settlements in leopard cat country that had:

Villagers made ceramic storage jars for grain (I don’t know if this was one, but it’s from roughly the right time and place). (Image: Daderot via Wikimedia, public domain)
  • Problems keeping rodents out of stored grain
  • Small cats, at least one of which had probably been fed table scraps, per isotopic analysis of its bones, and had been cared for into old age.
  • A cat buried carefully, as one would inter a pet.

All this happened about 5,500 years ago, long before Ancient Egyptians made the first tomb paintings of domesticated cats. (However, it occurred about 5,000 years after the first known contacts, in the Near East and Cyprus, between wildcats and people.)

Those Egyptian cats and all modern house cats have been traced to the Near Eastern wildcat, Felis lybica lybica.

And the whole continent of Asia separates Lybica’s range from that Neolithic village. It would take another 2 millennia for domestic cats to reach China via the Silk Road trading network.

So where did these Neolithic village cats come from?

They had to be wild cats of some kind.

There are 4 small species in the area — two of them can be excluded based on skeletal differences. This leaves the Central Asian wildcat F. l. ornata and the leopard cat.

Vigne et al., who have intensively studied the early phases of cat domestication, can’t rule out Ornata but they think the village cats were leopard cats that were either domesticated or tame.

If it was early domestication of another cat species, that didn’t last. No genetic evidence exists for leopard cat contributions to China’s domestic cats today.

But it would be nice to know exactly what kind of cats were owned by the Han (45 BC) and Tang (618-907 AD) dynasty elite. Old paintings show that many cats had spots; the larger ones were clearly cheetahs, but there are some smaller ones shown, too.

Researchers are now looking for ancient feline DNA from those periods of Chinese history to see if those were leopard cats or more closely related to Fluffy.

Fossil relatives:

All members of the leopard cat lineage have a very poor fossil record. Leopard cats are relatively common, but many live in environments that don’t promote fossilization. Perhaps a few fossils found in Middle Pleistocene sites in Southeast Asia are leopard cats. (Werdelin et al.)

Red-listed?

Yes, as Least Concern overall, although on islands and in other isolated areas, like India’s Western Ghats, the leopard cat is considered Endangered or Critically Endangered.

These cats are hunted for their beautiful coats, and the last report I could find (from the 1980s) said that China had set a harvest of 145,000 per year, with most pelts being exported to Japan. Pelts also show up in the illegal fur trade.

Leopard cats are sometimes killed in retaliation for raiding poultry. This species, like the caracal, is in the unique position of being endangered in some places and considered a pest in others.

But we are doing all that we can to protect the leopard cat.




Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.5.


Sources:

Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Leopard cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=123 Last accessed July 8, 2019.

Driscoll, C. A.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Roca, A. I.; Hupe, K.; and others. 2007. The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science. 317:519-522.

Driscoll, C. A.; Macdonald, D. W.; and O’Brien, S. J. 2009. From wild animals to domestic pets, an evolutionary view of domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Supplement 1. 106:9971-9978.Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Eizirik, E.; Yuhki, N.; Johnson, W. E.; Menotti-Raymond, M.; Hannah, S. S.; and O’Brien, S. J. 2003. Molecular genetics and evolution of melanism in the cat family. Current Biology, 13: 448-453.

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

Hu, Y.; Hu, S.; Wang, W.; Wu, X.; and others. 2014. Earliest evidence for commensal processes of cat domestication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. 111(1): 116-120.

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

Luo, S. J.; Zhang, Y.; Johnson, W. E.; 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.

Mohamed, A.; Sollmann, R.; Bernard, H.; Ambu, L. N.; and others. 2013. Density and habitat use of the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) in three commercial forest reserves in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Journal of Mammalogy, 94(1): 82-89.

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.; Hearn, A.; and others. 2015. Prionailurus bengalensis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T18146A50661611. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/18146/50661611

Vigne, J. D.; Evin, A.; Cucchi, T.; Dai, L.; and others. 2016. Earliest “domestic” cats in China identified as leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). PloS One. 11(1): e0147295.

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. Leopard cat. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopard_cat Last accessed July 8, 2019.



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