Why don’t we hear more about this medium-sized cat?
- It’s striped AND spotted
- It fishes for a living but is big enough to take livestock, including water buffalo calves
- It can break a dog’s jaw with one blow
Why aren’t we constantly reading about it?
Because this is a cat. It minds its own business so well that wildlife experts must scramble for data about its ecology, distribution, and status.
Not that this southern and southeastern Asian feline doesn’t showboat every now and then.
They gave the fishing cat that second name, for species, because its short legs, powerful build, and grayish fur with black spots and stripes — not to mention the banded tail! — all resemble those of a civet, especially the large Indian civet (which also has some similar behavior, like nocturnal hunting and a taste for fish).
The civet group is called Viverrinae. While these are cat-like (feliform) carnivores — as opposed to dog-like (caniform) carnivores like wolves and bears — they belong to the family Viverridae. Fishing cats are members of Felidae.
Depending on which reference you check, either all members of this lineage (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds) or all of them except Manul (Johnson et al.) are in the genus Prionailurus.
As mentioned, fishing cats resemble civets; they’re often mistaken for leopard cats, too.
But this water-loving kitty is unique in many ways. (All data below are from the Cat Specialist Group website unless otherwise noted.)
“You’re a fishing cat; you can handle this.”–Mom. These kitties also hiss, growl, and meow (sort of). Adults also chuckle, and during courtship, they chitter back and forth. (San Diego Zoo).
Features unique to this cat:
This is the only member of the cat family named for its diet. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
Zoologists report that the fishing cat’s brain has smaller centers associated with the sense of smell than most other cats do. (Kitchener et al., 2010)
Why this is so remains a mystery.
Sure, fishing cats might not need to sniff out a piscine dinner, but they do hunt on land, too. They also use scent marking, in the form of rubbing against things and spraying urine, for communication, just like all other cats.
Where found in the wild:
This is another mystery.
Per Macdonald et al., fishing cats live in a variety of habitats across southern and southeastern Asia. These are all near water, but they range from mangrove swamps at the coast to reed beds along mostly lowland streams.
But their distribution is highly localized and patchy.
Fishing cats seem to be fairly common in parts of the Himalayan Terai region, as well as in some locales in eastern India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka
However, conservationists are definitely still in the “we found one!” stage.
Talking with villagers here and elsewhere is an important conservation step. Sadly, people sometimes persecute fishing cats, which do occasionally take out livestock and dogs.
It doesn’t help that this species is often mistaken for other small wild cats. This leads to different assessments of fishing cat presence in many Southeast Asian places, including peninsular Malaysia and Indonesia’s Greater Sunda Islands (Sumatra and Java, in particular).
Closest cat-family relatives:
The rusty-spotted cat and other members of the leopard cat lineage. While phylogenetic studies differ on where Manul (the Pallas cat) fits into things, all agree that this lineage is a sister group to the domestic cat lineage.
Together, these are the most recent two branches of the cat family tree. Another way to put that is that leopard cat and domestic cat lineage members have the most distant connection to the big cats — the oldest lineage in family Felidae.
How fishing cats hunt and live:
Few details are known, but it appears that fishing cats depend on wetlands for home and for food.
Of course, the big question is, how does a cat catch fish?
See the webbed paws, and how the short tail doesn’t get in the way? Fishing cats have also been observed pushing themselves through the water with those back paws, free to grab whatever meal comes along with their front feet as well as their teeth. Sometimes they just sit on the bank and scoop out fish, too.
They also dive after waterfowl, and according to the Cat Specialist Group, have been reported swimming underwater and attacking ducks from below.
If true, a video of that would break the Internet!
But so little is known about fishing cats that zoologists even disagree on how well adapted the cats are for fishing.
Some point to the deep-chested body, short legs and powerful build (for swimming), relatively narrow and elongated skull and jaw (skeletal adaptations that are common in fish-eating vertebrates), and paw webbing that comes in handy for both swimming and walking through mud.
Others note that a fishing cat’s paws are no more webbed than a bobcat’s (some members of the lynx lineage are adapted for deep snow). They also say that fishing cats, like most felids, are generalists and will eat anything they can get.
Prey preferences certainly vary from place to place. Fish are always on the menus, but sometimes other small prey are important, too.
One study in India, described by Macdonald et al., showed that fish were, indeed, the main menu item at that location.
However, the Smithsonian reports that fishing cat habitats seemed to be linked to rodents, particularly rats. This may be why fishing cats are sometimes seen close to urban areas, including Sri Lanka’s capital city.
Two of them were even caught in 2010 near Kolkata’s international airport! The red-listed felines were later released in a more appropriate environment.
And of course, as the largest member of Prionailurus, fishing cats can and do hunt fawns and juvenile deer, as well as domestic animals up to the size of goats and calves.
These traits of flexibility and opportunism are typical of the family Felidae and have contributed to its amazing success over the last several million years.
The fish/generalist argument will probably settle down as additional information about these elusive wild cats comes in.
How they reproduce:
A few rough nests in reed beds have been found, but all that’s known about fishing cat families comes from captive cats.
After a gestation of roughly 65 days, kittens are born during the warmest time of the year.
They’re blind and weigh just a few ounces at birth, but after about a month they start to explore their world.
By age 2 months, the kittens begin to play in water and to take solid food.
It’s not all play.
Mom nurses the kittens for 6 months. They reach adult size at 8 months, and roughly two months after that, they’re ready to head off on their own.
In captivity, male fishing cats have been seen helping raise the young. It’s not known if they also do this in the wild.
No fishing cat fossils have been identified.
Origin dates based on molecular studies vary somewhat, but it looks as though distinct fishing cat and leopard cat species may have first appeared somewhere between 2 and 4 million years ago. (Johnson et al.; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds)
Yes, but it’s here that the uncertainty about fishing cat populations really shows up.
In 2008 and again in 2010, P. viverrinus was listed as Endangered — very high extinction risk. Then, in 2015, this was downlisted to Vulnerable, which is still at high extinction risk, but a little less dire.
However, the conservationists noted in their assessment that this downlisting wasn’t because the fishing cat’s conservation status has improved. It was because more information was available.
The main risk to fishing cats is loss of wetlands, retaliation killing for real and perceived predation on domestic animals, and ritual hunting (which was mentioned by Mukherjee et al.  as part of a survey in India).
Zoos are part of the solution, but they can’t solve the whole problem. (Fazio et al.)
And no zoo, however well funded and caring, can provide kittens with the same care that Mom does.
Note that this video was made while the fishing cat’s red-list status was Endangered; today it is Vulnerable, but that’s still a high extinction risk for these beautiful felines.
Featured image: Alina Wegher, Shutterstock
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Fishing cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=121 Last accessed July 31, 2019.
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Fazio, J. M.; Freeman, E. W.; Bauer, E.; Rockwood, L.; and Parsons, E. C. 2019. Evaluation of management in North American zoos to enhance breeding success of the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) ex situ population. Zoo Biology, 38(2): 189-199.
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.
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