Species Fact: Marbled Cats


Name:

Clouded leopards and marbled cats have very similar fur markings, but for some reason those are called “clouds” on the big cat and “marbles” for the smaller feline we are looking at now.

Actually, when seen from some angles, its coat blotches and spots do look rather marble-like, as this video shows:



“Marmor” is the Latin word for “marbled,” but marbled cats aren’t in Panthera (the big cats). Genetic studies show that they should be in another genus, so their scientific name is Pardofelis marmorata.

Two subspecies have been recognized, but the names are debatable. Per the Cat Specialist Group and IUCN, these are:

  1. Pardofelis marmorata marmorata: Cats with grayer background fur and large “marbling,” found on Borneo, Sumatra, the southern Malay Peninsula, and southern Thailand.
  2. Pardofelis marmorata longicaudata: These are more yellowish-brown and don’t have as many “marble” blotches. Such marbled cats have been seen from Nepal to northeastern India and Bangladesh. and in Southeast Asia, including the northern part of the Malay Peninsula.

Lineage:

Bay cat (some call this the Asiatic golden cat lineage).

Outstanding Features:

  1. A more rounded head than most cats have, with a wide face and tiny ears that aren’t very pointed. (Cat Specialist Group)
  2. Marbled cats may be the oldest members of their lineage, i.e., older than bay cats and Asiatic golden cats. Phylogenetic studies suggest that today’s marbled cat goes back some six to six and a half million years. (Johnson et al.; Nyaktura and Bininda-Emonds)
  3. Since clouded leopards are the only other member of family Felidae with such a coat and are probably also the oldest line of modern big cats, Werdelin et al. speculate that this remarkable look might be the last remnant of a primitive coat pattern that all cats once had. While fascinating, this hypothesis is very difficult to prove, since fur patterns don’t fossilize.
  4. Most cats cannot do this. (Image: Johan Embreus, via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

  5. Arboreal adaptations. Marbled cats have unusually large feet for their size, as well as short, sturdy legs and a very long tail. These physical characteristics help a variety of tree-top carnivores earn their living. Marbled cats are also one of only three feline species whose ankles can move through 180 degrees. This allows them to climb down trees head first. It’s tempting to think that such ankle flexibility, like the blotchy coat, might be a primitive feature, too, since clouded leopards and Latin America’s margay — the other two cats that are able to do this — are also very old species. However, what few fossils have been found of the very first known cats, some 20 million years ago, show that they had “normal” ankles like those seen on most cats today. (Cat Specialist Group; Kitchener et al., 2010; Turner and Antón; Werdelin et al.)

Data:

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

A marbled-cat stamp from Vietnam in the 1980s. (Image:
Lefteris Papaulakis/Shutterstock)

  • Weight: 5 to 11 pounds. While about the size of a large house cat, marbled cats are slimmer and appear a little longer.
  • Height at the shoulder: Around 11 inches. (International Society for Endangered Cats)
  • Body length: 18 to 24 inches.
  • Tail length: 14 to 22 inches. Although the tail is thick, bushy, and almost as long as the body, marbled cats hold it horizontally, instead of dragging it, as they walk along the ground. Why? The cats haven’t told us yet.
  • Coat: These beautiful cats have thick, soft fur, with a wooly underlayer and colorful outer guard hairs that show a background color ranging from dark gray-brown to a rich chestnut; melanistic (black) marbled cats have been seen in Sumatra. The large “marble” blotches on a cat’s flank and back turn into small dark spots on its legs, tail, and parts of the head, while the underparts of a marbled cat are usually a pale buff color. The cats finish off their dramatic look with dark “racing stripes” that start just above the inner corner of their eyes and travel over the top of the head and down the neck. (Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist)
  • Vocals: Not well known but believed to sound somewhat like a domestic cat. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
  • Litter size: 1 to 2 kittens.

Where found in the wild:

“Chermundy via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Marbled cats inhabit remote areas and may be rarer than other local small cats. They were first photographed only in the mid-1990s, when camera-traps became a thing, and their distribution still isn’t well understood. There seem to be small, isolated marbled cat populations that are spread out over a broad geographic range — from Nepal and northeastern India all the way to Yunnan Province in western China, and southward through Indochina to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo.

Habitat:

  • Range of environments: Marbled cats have been sighted from sea level up to almost 10,000 feet. They appear to depend on forests, particularly tropical rainforest and other moist woods. However, some have been found in plantations and previously logged stands.

  • Three cheers for camera traps!
    Drawings were all that 19th-century and most 20th-century wildlife researchers had to work with. (Image: Wikimedia, public domain)


  • Prey base: This is where our lack of knowledge about marbled cats really shows. Per the Cat Specialist Group, they’re thought to prey on small vertebrates and have been seen going after birds. In Sumatra and the eastern Himalayas, marbled cats sometimes prey on domestic poultry, which can lead to retaliation and persecution.
  • Example of guild: Of course, wildlife diversity is amazing in marbled-cat country:


    Here is 16 minutes’ worth of camera-trap images of wildlife in an Indonesian national park, including several cats (“kucing“). I’m not sure about some of them, but the first one is a clouded leopard and the little one who sits in front of the camera and yawns is definitely a marbled cat!


    Sunarto et al. studied cats in central Sumatra and found that clouded leopards and marbled cats (the local tree specialists) may be sharing the resources by hunting at different times and going after different-sized prey, while leopard cats and marbled cats (closest in body size) seem to divvy things up by using different microhabitats at different elevations above sea level, as well as through time sharing.

Red-list status:

Near Threatened. They were downlisted from Vulnerable in 2008 because the majority of conservationists felt that camera-trap information showed there were more adult marbled cats out there than originally believed and the population, while declining, wasn’t in an alarming freefall.

There wasn’t complete agreement on this move, though. For more detailed information on marbled cats and their status, see the IUCN’s most recent assessment and the Cat Specialist Group’s marbled cat page.


Featured image: W. T. Blanford, F.R.S., 1888, via Wikimedia, public domain.


Sources:

Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Marbled cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=122 Last accessed July 3, 2019.

Hearn, A. J.; Ross, J.; Bernard, H.; Bakar, S. A.; and others. 2016. The first estimates of marbled cat Pardofelis marmorata population density from Bornean primary and selectively logged forest. PLoS One, 11(3): e0151046.

International Society for Endangered Cats. 2020. Marbled cats. https://wildcatconservation.org/wild-cats/asia/marbled-cat/ Last accessed May 5, 2020.

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.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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.; Miao, L.; 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. 2010. 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.

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.; Datta, A.; and others. 2016. Pardofelis marmorata. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T16218A97164299. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/16218/97164299

Sunarto, S.; Kelly, M. J.; Parakkasi, K.; and Hutajulu, M. B. 2015. Cat coexistence in central S umatra: ecological characteristics, spatial and temporal overlap, and implications for management. Journal of Zoology, 296(2): 104-115.

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

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

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. Marbled cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marbled_cat Last accessed July 3, 2019.



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