Flat-headed cat : resembles more to a civet than to a feline

Flat-headed cat (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Flat-headed Cat (Prionailurus planiceps), a small wild felid listed as endangered by IUCN since 2008 due to destruction of wetlands in its habitat, is disconnectedly distributed in the Thai-Malay Peninsula, Borneo and Sumatra. It is difficult to estimate its population size due to patchy distribution and lack of any density estimates; however, local fishermen active along the Merang River in south Sumatra (which has relatively intact peat forests) described it as common. They tend to use a single generic term for both flat-headed cat and the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), which is a more abundant species. This makes scientific analysis of population more difficult. Experts believe the actual population size could be fewer than 2,500 mature individuals, with no subpopulation having an effective population size larger than 250 adult individuals. It is one of only two felids lacking any classically described subspecies.

Flat-headed cats are very rare in captivity, with less than 10 individuals; all are in Malaysian and Thai zoos as recorded by International Species Information System (ISIS).

Resembles more to a civet than to a feline

As the name suggests, the most prominent distinguishing feature of the cat is the extreme depression of the skull that extends along the nose to the extremity of the muzzle, the sides of which are laterally distended. One of the most unique and unusual members of the cat family, its head is more lengthened and cylindrical than in the domestic cats.

The body is generally slender, and the extremities are lengthened and delicate. Distance between the eyes and the unusually small and rounded ears are relatively large. The cylindrical form and lateral contraction of the head is contrasted by unusually lengthy canine teeth, which are nearly as long as in an individual of double its size. Cat’s jaws are relatively powerful and the teeth are tailored for clutching onto slippery prey. These features help the animal to catch and retain aquatic prey, to which it is at least as well adapted as the fishing cat. The anterior upper premolars are larger and sharper relative to other cats.

Cat’s long, narrow head and flattened forehead resembles to that of civet’s, which are not cats. They are members of Viverridae family. Fur is thick, soft and long, reddish-brown colour on top of the head, dark roan brown on the body, and mottled white on the underbelly. Face is lighter in colour than the body and the muzzle, chin and cheeks are white, with short, whitish streaks at the inner edge and along the lower margins of eyes, and two dark stripes on each cheek. A yellow line runs up from each eye to near the ear. Compared with other felids, Flat-headed cat’s eyes are large and unusually far forward and close together giving it improved stereoscopic vision. The short tail is thickly furred, reddish brown above and yellowish underneath.

Legs are fairly short and the claws are retractable, but the covering sheaths are so reduced that about two-thirds of the claws are left protruding like the Fishing Cat and the Cheetah. Though the claws can be seen at all times, they do not rub against the ground when walking as do the Cheetah’s. The inter-digital webs on its small, rounded paws are even more complete than those of Fishing Cat’s and help the felid gain better traction in muddy environments and water, and the pads are long and narrow like that of the Bornean Bay Cat. Flat-headed Cats have head-and-body length of 41 to 50 cm and a short tail of 13 to 15 cm. It weighs 1.5 to 2.5 kg.

Distribution and habitat

Flat-headed Cat's range (Attribution - Andreas Wilting et al. and CC BY 2.5)

Very little is known about this species, with only handful of observations and camera trap records. Available information suggests that these cats have patchy and restricted distribution around wetlands in lowland tropical rainforests in extreme southern Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. They occur in both primary and secondary forest. Though no research has been on this species in the wild, but reports of sightings indicate that they are found primarily in freshwater habitats near coastal and lowland areas, swamps, oxbow lakes and riverine forests. In more than 70 per cent of the records collected these cats were found within less than 3 km from water source. In fact they are to a greater degree, more closely associated with wetlands than the Fishing Cat. Flat-headed cats have also been seen hunting rodents in oil palm plantations.

In 2013 Flat-headed cat’s presence was recorded in the Pasoh Forest Reserve in Peninsular Malaysia. Pasoh contains no major rivers or lakes and is generally covered by hill dipterocarp forest, having trees belonging to the family Dipterocarpaceae containing 17 genera and approximately 500 species of mainly tropical lowland rainforest trees that bear two-winged fruits. This detection offered new evidence of the species’ potential habitat range. Pasoh’s surroundings have plantations that have been established way back in 1970s. Presence of cat near oil palm plantations indicates that it is more tolerant of changes in its surrounding environment than previously thought.

Once declared extinct in Malaysia, a small number of Flat-headed cats were found in 1985, living in palm oil plantations and preying on the numerous rats found there. In 1995, two individuals were seen along the Merang River on the island of Sumatra by some zoologists. These were the first confirmed sightings in Berbak National Park, whereas the park officials had never heard or observed the species before. In 1996, the first ever picture of the cat in the wild was taken by camera trap in Sumatra. 

Ecology and behavior

It is presumed that the Flat-headed cats are solitary and nocturnal, but an adult captive female was found to be crepuscular, most active between 8 and 11.30 am and between 6 and 10 pm. To secure their home range they use scent marking. In captivity both sexes have been observed spraying urine by walking forward in a crouching position, leaving a trail on the ground.

Morphological specialization of these cats indicates that their diet is mostly composed of fish, but they are also reported to hunt frogs and take crustaceans. It is believed that they also take birds and small rodents and prey on domestic poultry. Stomach contents of two dead animals have been found to be containing mostly fish and shrimp shells.

With the increase in scientific studies of various animals, including the flat-headed cats, the number of sightings has also increased. A feline was observed in the area that had been selectively logged in 2004. A group of primate researchers in Borneo accidently trapped a Flat-headed cat in 2005. The team decided to release it in the forest near a riverbank, as soon as the cage door was opened the cat quickly slid into the water and swam over to other bank. The most interesting part was instead of running inside the jungle it headed straight to water for safety.

Flat-headed cats too have raccoon like habit of washing food. While hunting in river or stream they do not hesitate to submerge their head in water whenever there is a need. After the fish is caught it is usually carried at least two meters away from water, suggesting a feeding strategy to avoid letting aquatic prey escape back into water. Above habits have also been confirmed by captive specimens. In an incident in Kuala Lumpur, a flat-headed kitten in captivity when provided with a basin of water, immediately entered it and played in it, sometimes for hours. It played with various objects placed in water and caught pieces of fish with its mouth from a depth of 12cm, fully submerging its head. It often washed objects in water. Interestingly, it captured live frogs when placed in the cage, but completely ignored sparrows that ventured near the cage. It showed another peculiar behavior, when offered food. The kitten, which survived only for a month, always carried it at least 4-5 meters away from the place it was offered. This indicates, these cats instinctively carry their slippery prey away from water ensuring it does not enter the water again even after slipping away. These facts show that the cat has a strong preference for riverine hunting in its natural habitat.

Vocalization in kittens resembles those of a domestic cat. The vocal repertoire of adults has not been analyzed completely, but they purr and give other short-ranged vocalizations.

Taxonomic history

Like some other small felids, initially flat-headed cats were also classified under the genus Felis by Vigors and Horsfield, who first described them in 1827 from Sumatra. In 1951, Ellerman and Morrison-Scott grouped Felis planiceps, the flat-headed cat, with Felis viverrina, the fishing cat, as being distributed in Sumatra and Borneo, Lower Siam, the Malay States and recorded from Patani. Later, a German biologist, Weigel who compared fur pattern of domestic and wild felids placed flat-headed cat under a minor genus Prionailurus in 1961. In 1997, researchers from the National Cancer Institute confirmed this taxonomic ranking following their phylogenetic studies.

Reproduction

Not much is known about the reproductive habits of Flat-headed cats. Their gestation period lasts about 56 days after which female produces a litter of 1 to 4 kittens. Of three litters recorded in captivity one consisted of two kittens and the other two were singletons. Two captive individuals have lived for fourteen years.

A young kitten that was found in the wild had much the same coloration as the adults except that it was somewhat greyer. It developed adult coloration at one year of age.

Threats

The major threat to the existence of Flat-headed cat is from wetland and lowland forest destruction and degradation. Over 45 per cent of protected wetlands and 95 per cent of globally significant wetlands in Southeast Asia are considered threatened. Another fact is that over 1.5 million hectares of lowland forests are being cut down annually in Borneo posing major threat to the existence of local wildlife.

Reason behind this destruction is human settlement, draining of agriculture, trapping, snaring and poisoning, forest transformation to plantations, excessive hunting, fishing and wood-cutting. Pollution is another big threat as it contaminates its prey. In addition to these activities, clearance of coastal mangroves over the past decade has been rapid in tropical Asia. Expansion of oil palm plantations is currently viewed as the most urgent threat. Malaysia and Indonesia are the largest producers of palm oil globally and according to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report of 2007, Southeast Asia has had the world’s highest deforestation rate for years. Forest transformation to plantations and denudation is on such a large scale that over 70 per cent of the cat’s predictable historical suitable habitat has been transformed to unsuitable habitats. Depletion of fish stocks from over-fishing is prevalent in many Asian wetland environments and is likely to be significant threat. Waterways are often the first to be cleared to make way for human settlements. These problems are widespread throughout the range of the cat.

In Southeast Asia flat-headed cats are not known to be specific target for poachers, but side-catch poaching in small snares might pose an additional threat for the species. In fragmented landscape motor vehicle collisions and direct competition with domestic cats could pose more serious threats.

Conservation

Flat-headed cats are placed on CITES Appendix I. They are fully protected by national legislations throughout their range, with hunting and trade prohibited in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.

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