Species Fact: The Leopard Cat


Besides being bigger, leopards (“Panthera pardus”) also have a more powerful build. (Image: Image Catalog, public domain)

At a distance, this slim little spotted cat does look like a miniature leopard. Up close, though, you’ll see that:

  • Its legs are proportionately longer than a leopard’s are.
  • There are dark bars of fur on its face and legs.
  • Spots and rosettes tend to line up along the cat’s back and flanks, while a leopard is randomly spotted all over.

Leopard cats genetically are not part of Panthera. They have their own lineage.

Name:

Still, it’s easy to see where the leopard cat gets its name — at least in English. However, to some in China this is the “money cat” — those coat marks remind them of coins. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

Other names reference the cat’s location. For example:

  • “Bengal cat” (per Sunquist and Sunquist, the first one described was captured when it swam out to a ship in the Bay of Bengal).
  • In Russia, this is the “Amur cat” or “Far Eastern forest cat.” (Heptner and Sludskii)
  • “Iriomote cats” and “Tsushima cats” are leopard cats living on these two Japanese islands. Evolution in such isolation has given them a slightly different appearance from the rest of the group.

Leopard cats have a wide variety of looks anyway, since they are widespread and adapted to many different habitats. As a result, experts once thought there had to be more than one species, as well as multiple subspecies. (Kitchener et al., 2017; Sunquist and Sunquist)

Molecular testing has cleared some of this up, but it has also raised new questions that are still under discussion.

For instance, experts like the Cat Specialist Group and Kitchener et al. do identify two species:

  1. Prionailurus bengalensis: Mainland Asia’s leopard cat. This also includes the leopard cats of Tsushima and Iriomote islands in Japan.
  2. Prionailurus javanensis: Sunda leopard cats on several islands, from Java and Borneo to the Philippines (but not Japan); this might also apply to leopard cats on the Malay Peninsula.

But the most recent red-listing assessment by Ross et al., in 2015, just uses Prionailurus bengalensis and calls for further research into whether Sunda leopard cats are a separate species.

Lineage:

Leopard cat.

Outstanding Features:

Soumyajit Nanday, CC BY-SA 4.0

  1. Most common wild cat in Asia. (Luo et al.; Mohamed et al.)
  2. Broadest geographic distribution of any Asian small cat. Leopards cats are found in forests from southern India to the Philippines, south into Indonesia, and north into Japan and Siberia. (Mohamed et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist)
  3. The only native wild cat left in Japan (on Tsushima and Iriomote islands) and the Philippines.
  4. This five-month-old Bengal fancy-cat has the rosettes of an Asian leopard cat and a tabby-cat “M” on its forehead. (Sean McGrath, CC BY 2.0)

  5. The “wild” half of the wild/domestic hybrid cat breed called the Bengal. Leopard cats and domestic cats also interbreed naturally, though this isn’t common enough to threaten the leopard cat’s genetic heritage. (Heptner and Sludskii; Macdonald et al.)
  6. Leopard cats may have been domestic once (though not necessarily domesticated). Archaologists have found the remains of small felines that match the leopard cat’s description, living among people in the neolithic farming village of Quanhucun, in what is now Shaanxi Province, China, between roughly 5560 and 5280 BC. That is some three millennia before the first known domestic cats reached China. Evidence suggests that rodents were getting into grain stores, and that the cats were eating the rodents. One animal was surprisingly old — perhaps humans fed and cared for it. (Hu et al.; Vigne et al.)

Data:

This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.

  • Weight: 4 to 18 pounds. Variations in leopard cat size can be dramatic – those in the north are often more than twice as large as their tropical relatives. (Mohamed et al.)
  • Height at the shoulder: About 16 inches. (Wikipedia)
  • Body length: 18 to 26 inches.
  • Tail length: 8 to 12 years.
  • Coat: All leopard cats have two dark stripes on their forehead, as well as white fur streaking their face and surrounding their muzzle. Many also have black bar markings on the neck, back, and/or upper legs. The tail is spotted, with a black tip, and sometimes has a few dark rings, too. (Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist) Experts who believe there are two species note that Sunda leopard cats tend to have small solid spots, while the mainland species has larger blotches with a light-colored center. (Kitchener et al.) Sunquist and Sunquist, however, note that fur colors and patterns are so different from place to place that it’s not possible to describe the coat of a “standard” leopard cat! This video of a rescued kitten in northern Asia shows the grayish brown coloring and relatively faint spots that are common in that part of leopard cat country. Closer to the equator, a leopard cat’s background color is brighter, usually yellow brown to ocher, with very clear black spots and rosettes standing out clearly. (Cat Specialist Group; Heptner and Sludskii; Sunquist and Sunquist)

    Left:: Leopard cat from Tsushima Island, Japan. (Image: S. Brickman, CC BY-SA 2.0)/Right: Leopard cat from the tropics. (Image: plasticpeople, CC BY 2.0)


  • Vocals: The same sounds you might expect from Fluffy: growls, hissing, spitting, meowing, purring, and gurgling. (Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia)
  • Average litter size: 2 to 3 kittens.

Where found in the wild:

Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Leopard cats are found in 21 Asian countries. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

Look for leopard cats in parts of India and into Pakistan and Afghanistan. They also prowl the Himalayan foothills, much of China, north to the Korean peninsula and the southern part of Russia’s Far East. As well, leopard cats are common in most of Southeast Asia. (Cat Specialist Group)

Snow depth limits the northern limit of their range. These resourceful little predators handle winter conditions well until snow gets more than about 4 inches deep. Rodent hunting then becomes almost impossible. Lucky leopard cats may find an unfrozen spring of water and live on fish until the snow melts, or raid local hen houses, but many will perish during a hard winter. (Heptner and Sludskii; Ross et al.)

Habitat:

  • Range of environments: Leopard cats have been seen from sea level up to over 14,000 feet (4474 meters) in Nepal. In the Russian Far East, sightings are most common along rivers, in river valleys and forested ravines, and in coastal areas. Farther south, leopard cats inhabit forests, but they’re not fussy and will settle into anything from a tropical rainforest to a Manchurian stand of oak trees or a dry conifer landscape on the lower Himalayan slopes. This is one of the few wild cat species known to use human-altered landscapes, including oil palm and other tree plantations. (Cat Specialist Group; Heptner and Sludskii; Mohamed et al.; Ross et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist)
  • Prey base: Mouse-like rodents, though they also eat other small mammals as well as birds, lizards, amphibians, and insects. In some places, leopard cats are persecuted as poulty pests, but Heptner and Sludskii point out that, at least in the north, reports of this are only made during heavy winters. (Heptner and Sludskii; Macdonald et al.; Ross et al.; Sunquist and Sunquist)
  • Example of guild: In Russia, competing small carnivores include fox, the Eurasian lynx, and yellow-throated martins. Guild relationships in tropical rainforests are not yet well understood. One study on Sumatra by McCarthy et al. reported finding clouded leopards, marbled cats, Asiatic golden cats, flat-headed cats, and tigers; in this area, leopard cats stayed closer to the forest edge, at low elevations, and much closer to roads than the other cats. (Heptner and Sludskii; Mohamed et al.; McCarthy et al.)

Red-list status:

Least Concern overall, although on islands and in a few other places the leopard cat is considered. For more details, see the IUCN’s online Red List assessment at https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/18146/50661611 and the Cat Specialist Group’s leopard cat page at https://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=123.


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


Sources:

Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Leopard cat. https://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.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopard_cat Last accessed July 8, 2019.



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