Since this is one of the world’s smallest and shyest cats, your observation of a rusty-spotted cat in the wild — unless you’re very patient and lucky (like this person) — is likely to only be “Those leaves moved. Was that it?”
There aren’t many in zoos, either. Rusty-spotted cats don’t do well in captivity. (Cat Specialist Group)
The BBC offers amazing close-up views of a rusty-spotted cat kitten exploring its world:
But experts still have more questions than answers about Rusty, the cat family’s “hummingbird” (a nickname given to this wee feline, per Sunquist and Sunquist, because of its hyperactivity as well as its small size).
Yes, many of these cats do have rust-colored spots along the back and flanks.
However, it depends on location. In some places, Rusty’s spots are dark brown to black.
- This is certainly the smallest Asian cat. Its only competition for the world title are Africa’s black-footed cat and South America’s guigna (a/k/a the kodkod).
- Depending on which researcher you ask, Rusty is either the oldest member of its lineage or tied with Manul (the Pallas cat) for that title. Age estimates for the rusty-spotted cat go back either some four million years to the early Pliocene (Johnson et al.) or farther — some six and a half million years, into the late Miocene (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds).
- Some people have reportedly tamed individual rusty-spotted cats, but it must have been difficult. Rusty is famous for agility, speed, and fierceness. Here’s an adult in captivity, fighting a losing battle with its archnemesis — an empty coffee cup:
This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.
- Weight: 2 to 4 pounds.
- Body length: 14 to 19 inches.
- Tail length: 8 to 10 inches.
- Coat: The fur that you glimpse through the leaves in a short encounter is brownish-gray in India, a little more reddish in Sri Lanka. Rusty typically has a couple of dark lines along its cheeks, as well as four stripes that start just above the eyes and run across the top of the cat’s head to its neck. Underparts show white fur that’s spotted and has dark bars. Its tail has some faint rings.
- Average litter size: 1 to 3.
Where found in the wild:
No one really knows much about rusty-spotted cats, not even how many are out there. For a long time, they were only seen in India and Sri Lanka, but some also have been sighted recently in Nepal.
Rusty may be even more widespread, but thus far this little cat has eluded researchers in the field who want to better understand its ecology and distribution.
- Range of environments: Rusty has been observed below elevations of about 8,000 feet in dry and moist deciduous forest, tropical thornscrub, rocky terrain, and a few other habitats.
Here is Rusty avoiding spotlights in the dry woodlands of India’s Gir Park.
Per the Cat Specialist Group, it’s probably not a rainforest resident, except perhaps on Sri Lanka. The trees provide resting places and escape routes, but this cat is most likely a ground hunter.
- Prey base: This is under investigation.
Presumably, rusty-spotted cats take small animals, but detailed information on their diet in the wild is missing. As captives, they have enormous appetites — not a surprise in view of their high levels of activity.
- Example of guild: This is not well understood. In India, Rusty apparently shares its range with the jungle cat but not so much with southern Asia’s other common little wild cat: the leopard cat. Of note, Bengal tigers are out there, too, but no one has yet posted an image of these two size extremes together (Bengals are one of the largest cats, while Rusty is one of the smallest).
This is a downlisting from Vulnerable, but conservationists still have many concerns. Check out that link, as well as the Cat Specialist Group’s page on rusty-spotted cats for more details.
Featured image: Jirik V Shutterstock.
Aditya, V., and Ganesh, T. 2016. Camera trap records of Rusty-spotted Cat Prionailurus rubiginosus and Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae) from Papikonda National Park, northern Eastern Ghats, India. Journal of Threatened Taxa, 8(5): 8818-8819.
Cat Specialist Group. n. d. Rusty-spotted cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=120 Last accessed June 1, 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.
Mukherjee, S.; Duckworth, J. W.; Silva, A.; Appel, A.; and Kittle, A. 2016. Prionailurus rubiginosus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016:e.T18149A50662471.
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.
Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=IF8nDwAAQBAJ
Wikipedia. 2019. Rusty-spotted cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rusty-spotted_cat Last accessed May 17, 2019.