Species Fact: The Flat-headed Cat


Yes, sometimes they wash their food just like raccoons.

Fishing cats get all the glory when it comes to catching a slippery dinner, but flat-headed cats are much better at it.

Good enough, in fact, to be well adapted to wetlands and riverine woods. And that’s a problem for their long-term survival.

Probably.

Experts actually know very little about this endangered small cat.



Seldom seen and very shy.


Scientific name:

Prionailurus planiceps.

That means “flat-headed member of the genus Prionailurus,” and not in an insulting way. Check out its flattened forehead profile in the image below.

Lineage:

Leopard cat.

Data:

All data are from the Cat Specialist Group website, unless otherwise noted.

It’s important to note that flat-headed cats are so rare that almost all information about them comes from a handful of captives and fewer than 20 museum specimens collected since the species was first discovered in the 19th century. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

Wilting et al. (2010) via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5

  • Weight: A little over 4 pounds — much smaller than the fishing cat and a little smaller than many house cats.
  • Body length: 18 to 21 inches
  • Tail length: 5 to 7 inches. When you spend so much time in the water, a long tail just gets in the way.
  • Coat: The reddish brown fur is thick and soft, and the cat has a silvery appearance because each hair has a white tip (nice camouflage for a watery environment). The top of the cat’s head is a bit redder, while its chin, muzzle, and belly are white. Flat-headed cats have distinctive dark stripes behind and below their eyes (Ecology Asia) as well as two prominent whitish streaks on either side of the nose.
  • Vocals: Reportedly, a little like domestic cats, including purring and meowing. (Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia)
  • Average litter size: 1 to 2 kittens. However, this is based on a very few captive flat-headed cats; nothing is know about litter size in the wild.
  • Average life span: Captives have lived up to 14 years.

Features unique to this cat:

  • Appearance: Flat-headed cats are seldom seen, but when they do show up, they’re never mistaken for something else. No other cat and few small carnivores have that sloping forehead, enormous eyes, tiny lowset ears, short legs, and bobbed tail.
  • Fishing adaptations: Flat-headed cats are family Felidae’s entry for the semi-aquatic carnivore niche.

    * They have longer teeth than other cats, the better to grasp fish with. Zoologists say that this species also has longer, narrower jaws than most other cats — an adaptation shared by many fish-eating vertebrates.

    * Those big eyes are set farther forward and closer together than in other cats, giving flat-headed cats excellent stereoscopic vision to detect movements under the water surface.

    * Their claws are partially unsheathed, even when retracted. That’s handy when walking in mud or shallow water.

  • Diet: No, not fish — remember, the fishing cat likes to dive for fish or scoop them out of the water, too.

    In fact, many cats will go for fish if the opportunity arises.



    Being generalists and opportunists is a major reason for the cat family’s success over the last several million years. These leopards could really use the flat-headed cat’s visual “superpower,” though.


    How about fruits and vegetables?

    The flat-headed cat, while subsisting mainly on fish, frogs, and other wetlands critters, might be the only cat to include these in its diet. On Borneo, it’s said, these cats even dig up sweet potatoes! (Ewer)

  • Weird spraying behavior: All cats spray, but only flat-headed cats do so by walking forward while crouching. They basically leave a scent trail on the ground instead of marking a tree or bush.

Where found in the wild:

This looks widespread, but the map is based on very localized, one-off reports. (Image: BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Flat-headed cats have been observed recently in southern Thailand, peninsular Malaysia, and the Sunda islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

But sightings are infrequent, even with the hundreds of camera traps that are out there now.

These rare appearances probably do mean that very few flat-headed cats exist, but experts can’t rule out the possibility that the water-loving felines are being missed by camera set-ups designed for more traditional wild cats.

Catch-22: You must know the animal’s behavior before you can set up your cameras, but you need to set up your cameras first in order to meet the animal.

Perhaps if they planted some sweet potatoes at a camera trap near a Bornean waterway . . . ? Just kidding.

The few specimens that have been collected came from forests, along rivers and streams, or from flood-prone areas. (Sunquist and Sunquist) Most sightings have been while the cat was walking along a riverbank, at night or in the early morning.



However, flat-headed cats were recently photographed in a Malaysian forest that has no important water bodies. (Image: Wadey et al., CC BY 3.0)


Wilting et al. (2010) report that the highest number of sightings are from Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, mostly by tourists who are taking a night cruise on the river.

Conservationists get excited by the merest glimpse of a flat-headed cat.


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Closest cat-family relatives:

In terms of leopard cat lineage members, flat-headed cats are a little older than fishing cats and leopard cats, but not as old as the rusty-spotted cat. (Johnson et al.; Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds)

As a group, these cats are most closely related to the domestic cat lineage and to the Pallas cat (Manul).

How flat-headed cats hunt and live:

No one really knows, though it’s fairly obvious that these felines are adapted for fishing and life near (and in) the water.

Small cats don’t draw the attention and funding that leopards, tigers, and other big cats do. Wildlife biologists are working to get radiocollar tracking and other studies going of this elusive and unusual little cat.

How they reproduce:

This is another mystery.

Fossil relatives:

There are no fossils of flat-headed cats.

Red-listed?

Yes, as Endangered (high risk of extinction). This was upgraded from Vulnerable in 2008 based on the likelihood that flat-headed cats need wetlands and lowland rain forest to survive. These two types of habitat are vanishing quickly in Southeast Asia as land is cleared for farming and oil palm plantations.

And most of this area is outside protected parks and reserves, which tend to be in upland or mountain settings. That’s not good for the flat-headed cat, either.

There may be only 2,500 mature cats left, though this needs to be better established with more field data. (Wilting et al., 2015)

On Borneo, which might be the flat-headed cat’s major stronghold, some conservationists and palm oil industry representatives are working together in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil initiative. (Wilting et al., 2016)

The flat-headed cat is a flagship species. In other words, protecting this feline will also help other plants and animals that depend on freshwater resources.

But there’s still a long way to go for this elusive little Asian cat.


Featured image: Signature Message/Shutterstock


Sources:

Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Flat-headed cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=119 Last accessed August 5, 2019.

Ecology Asia. 2019. Flat-headed cat. https://www.ecologyasia.com/verts/mammals/flat-headed-cat.htm Last accessed August 5, 2019.

Encylopaedia Britannica. 2019. Flat-headed cat. https://www.britannica.com/animal/flat-headed-cat Last accessed August 5, 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.

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.

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wadey, J.; Fletcher, C.; and Campos-Arceiz, A. 2014. First photographic evidence of flat-headed cats (Prionailurus planiceps) in Pasoh Forest Reserve, Peninsular Malaysia. Tropical Conservation Science, 7(2); 171-177.

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. Flat-headed cat. https://en..wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat-headed_cat Last accessed August 5, 2019.

Wilting, A.; Cord, A.; Hearn, A. J.; Hesse, D.; and others. 2010. Modelling the species distribution of flat-headed cats (Prionailurus planiceps), an endangered South-East Asian small felid. PloS one, 5(3): e9612.

Wilting, A.; Brodie, J.; Cheyne, S.; Hearn, A.; and others. 2015. Prionailurus planiceps. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T18148A50662095.

Wilting, A.; Cheyne, S. M.; Mohamed, A.; Hearn, A. J.; and others. 2016. Predicted distribution of the flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) on Borneo. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology.

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