Genus Prionailurus includes four Asian species of small, spotted wild cats. Though they are typically forest-dwelling, but most of them are good swimmer and lead semi-aquatic life, feeding mainly on fish and other aquatic animals.
Nikolai Severtzov, a Russian explorer and naturalist, first proposed Prionailurus as a generic name for the leopard cat in 1858, when many naturalists placed the species under the genus Felis. Prior to this Leopard cat, described by Brian Houghton Hodgson, was named as Felis pardachrous.
In 1917 Reginald Innes Pocock, a British zoologist, recognized the taxonomic classification of Prionailurus. He described the genus on the basis of skins and skulls in 1939 and also compared them to body parts of species belonging to the genus Felis. Species belonging to the genus Prionailurus are marked with spots, which are frequently lanceolate (lance-shaped or tapering from a rounded base towards an apex), sometimes rosette-like and seldom tending to run into longitudinal chains, but never mingling to form vertical stripes as in Felis. Prionailurus skulls are lower and less vaulted than Felis, the facial portion is shorter than the cranial, the floor of the orbits (cavity or socket of the skull in which the eye and its appendages are situated) is longer, the nasal bones are not everted above the anterior nares (external portion of the nostrils), the outer chamber of bulla (hollow bony structure on the ventral, posterior portion of the skull of placental mammals that encloses parts of the middle and inner ear) is much smaller than the inner chamber. Pocock classified the leopard cat, rusty-spotted cat and fishing cat as belonging to the genus Prionailurus.
Today Pocock‘s classification of Prionailurus is widely accepted. It comprises of :
- Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)
- Rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus)
- Fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)
- Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)
Molecular analysis of leopard cat populations indicates a clear distinction between northern populations from Tsushima, Siberia, Taiwan, China and Korea and Southeast Asian populations. If these genetic differences point toward specific differences, P. b. euptilurus may yet be a valid species. The Iriomote cat (Prionailurus bengalensis iriomotensis) has been proposed as a distinct species based on morphology, but is considered a subspecies of P. bengalensis based on genetic analysis.