The rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) competes with Black-footed Cat (Felis nigripes) and the Kodkod (Leopardus guigna) as the world’s smallest wild cat species. Found only in India and Sri Lanka, they have been described by some as a smaller, ‘washed-out’ version of Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). IUCN listed these cats as Vulnerable in 2002 as their total effective population size is below 10,000 adults, with a declining trend due to loss of habitat and no sub-population holding more than 1,000 breeding individuals.
Rusty-spotted cat is another member of small cats about which little is known. They have slender body and are smaller than a domestic cat. 35 to 48 cm long, weighing only 0.9 to 1.6 kg, it has 15 to 30 cm long tail. Their head is short, rounded and marked with two white streaks on the inner edges of the eyes. Its short and soft fur is grey over most of the body, reddish-brown spots over the back and flanks, while the underbelly and inner sides of the legs are white with large dark spots. Legs are relatively short and the feet have black soles. There are horizontal bars on the legs and chest. Referred to as a smaller ‘washed-out’ version of the leopard Cat, its more rusty coloured tail is thick and about half the length of the body, and the spots are less distinct. They have two dark streaks on their face and four dark streaks running from the top of their head to their nape. Eyes are quite large with irises of grayish brown to amber. Ears are short and rounded, backed with rufous grey and have light coloured basal ear spots.
Found only in India and Sri Lanka
Found only in India and Sri Lanka, Prionailurus rubiginosus was earlier thought to inhabit only moist forests, but the recent records have shown that it also occurs in dry deciduous forests, wooded grasslands, bamboo forests, on rocky hill slopes and arid scrubland. They prefer dense vegetation and rocky areas and are likely absent from the evergreen forests. In Sri Lanka, they are found from the sea level to the elevation of 2,100 meters.
Subspecies and their distribution
Only two subspecies are recognized:
Prionailurus rubiginosus rubiginosus — occurring in India
Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi — occurring in Sri Lanka
In India, they were long thought to be confined to the southern parts of the country, but records have established their presence over much of the country. Their presence has been confirmed in the tropical dry Gir Wildlife Sanctuary and National Park in the state of Gujrat in western India. In the central part of the country they were recorded from two reserves — the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve and the Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary — both in the state of Maharashtra. Camera trapping has revealed their presence in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, along the India-Nepal border in the foothills of Himalayas and in the Indian plains of ‘terai’ (a marshy belt of forests, grasslands and savannas) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. In July and August 2011, camera trap stations recorded Prionailurus rubiginosus rubiginosus also in Corbett Tiger reserve in the hill state of Uttarakhand. Later in 2015, according to the Haryana’s chief wildlife warden Amrinder Kaur, the cat was caught on the camera trap in Kalesar National Park in Yamunanagar district of the state.
In the western parts of Maharashtra a breeding population was found in a human dominated agricultural landscape, where rodent densities are quite high. They have also been discovered living in even abandoned houses in a thickly populated area of southern India, away from forest which is considered their habitat. Experts feel that it is perhaps due to the presence of rats and mice around the houses, and nearby poultry serves as food.
In Sri Lanka, there are a few records from montane and lowland rainforest. There are two distinct populations, one in the wet zone and the other in the dry zone. Showing some tolerance to modified habitats, females with kittens have been found living in dens and crevices in tea plantations in Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka, rusty-spotted cats are known as ‘Handun Diviya’ or ‘Kola Diviya’. Both the terms are also used for fishing cats by the local community. Since both are nocturnal and elusive, it is difficult to determine which cat is specifically referred to as ‘Handun Diviya‘.
Ecology and behavior
Very little is known about the life of Rusty-spotted cat, although they are believed to be nocturnal and partly arboreal. They spend the day sleeping in dense cover or shelter such as hollow logs. They have a reputation of being fierce hunters taking large prey, but their diet consists mainly of rodents that prefer cultivated areas and birds, but they may also take amphibians like frogs, reptiles like lizards and even insects. In Sri Lanka the cat has been observed near termite hills, especially after heavy rain, feeding on winged termites.
Primarily these cats hunt on the ground, making rapid, darting movements to catch prey; they seemingly venture into the trees largely to escape larger predators rather than for food. As with other cats, they also mark their territories by spraying urine.
T.C. Jerdon, a British physician, zoologist and botanist, had Rusty-spotted Cat as a pet, which would hunt squirrels in the rafters of his house. When introduced to young gazelle, the cat immediately seized it by the nape and had to be pulled off before it would let go. Jerdon was a pioneering ornithologist who described numerous species of birds in India. Several species of plants (including the genus Jerdonia) and birds including the rare Jerdon’s courser are named after him.
In the eastern parts of Gujrat, Rusty-spotted Cats have been observed living in caves and taking shelter in gaps of big boulders. They were also seen hunting by ambushing the prey in the grass and bamboo thickets or sitting on big tree branches from where they jumped directly onto the prey on the ground. These cats usually prefer forest edges than the dense cover where leopards (Panthera pardus) and Leopard Cats (Prionailurus bengalensis) are found. During monsoon Jungle Cats (Felis chaus) also move into Rusty-spotted habitat to prey on amphibians. To avoid getting killed smaller cats keep their distance from their larger cousins.
The reproductive behavior of this cat has been observed in captivity and is found to be almost identical to that of the domestic cat. Oestrus in these cats usually lasts about three days, but the period can be extended if the female has not mated. Breeding is seasonal in captivity and mating is unusually brief, from one to five minutes, but can be repeated numerous times in a day. Since the cat becomes vulnerable during this period, brief mating may be an adaptation to avoid larger predators. After successful mating as the time for delivery approaches after the gestation of 65-70 days mother prepares a den in an isolated and sheltered location and gives birth to 1-3 kittens, usually one, each weighing just 60 to 77g. Nothing is known of their development but it is probably much like that of domestic kittens.
The kittens lack the rusty spotting of the adults and are marked with rows of black spots. Their irises are light blue. They reach sexual maturity at around 68 weeks, by which time they develop the distinctive adult coat pattern of rusty blotches. They have been found living for twelve years in captivity, but their lifespan in the wild is unknown.
The biggest and the most serious threat both in India and Sri Lanka has been deforestation and the cultivation of the landscape resulting in habitat loss at a very large scale. Although there are several records of sighting of rusty-spotted cats from cultivated and settled areas, it is not known to what degree cat populations are able to persist in such areas. There have been occasional reports of the cat’s skins being traded. In some areas, they are hunted for food, but they are frequently killed for taking domestic livestock, especially chickens.
Rusty-spotted cats have always been considered rare, but recent observations indicate they are more widespread than earlier thought. The Indian population is listed on CITES Appendix I. The Sri Lankan population is included on CITES Appendix II. The species is fully protected over most of its range, with hunting and trade banned in India and Sri Lanka.
As of 2010, the captive populations of P. r. phillipsi, comprised of 56 individuals, were in eight institutions. Of these 45 were in seven European zoos whereas 11 were in the Colombo Zoo. Given their smaller size they are easy to be raised as pet like domestic cat. In the company of humans they are playful, affectionate and expressive and form strong bond with their keepers. Since their ability to control rodents is tremendous, they can easily survive on smaller mammals if not persecuted by man. Unfortunately these cats are often mistakenly persecuted as cubs of the Leopard (Panthera pardus), hunted for meat and skin and killed by domestic dogs. However, not much is known of the cat’s status in the wild, hybridization with feral or domestic cats have also been observed.
Descendents of a Sri Lankan pair
Rusty-spotted cats are seldom seen in captivity. All individuals both in European and the North American populations have come from a single pair imported from Sri Lanka. Due to political strife, additional specimens from that country have not been available, and the Colombo Zoo had to obtain specimens from Europe for exhibit. Populations occurring in India are a distinct subspecies and are not available from any source. Although managed by an international studbook, this species is not endangered.