Jungle Cat : largest living Felis

Jungle Cat (Attribution - L. Shyamal and CC BY-SA 3.0)The jungle cat (Felis chaus), also known as Reed Cat and Swamp Cat, is a medium-sized cat found in the vast expanse of Asia, extending from southern China in the east through Southeast and Central Asia to the Nile Valley in the west. Once thought to be a close relative of lynxes because of the external features, it is in fact closely related to domestic cats. In the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species it is listed as Least Concern as it is widespread and common especially in India. Range contraction and population declines are cause of concern, particularly in southwestern, Central and Southeast Asia, Egypt and in the Caucasus and. Geographic variation in the jungle cat is quite considerable.

Lynx like cat

Largest of the living Felis species, it resembles a small lynx as it has a distinct spinal crest, comparatively short tail, long limbs and a small tuft of long hairs that occur on ear tips in winter. Somewhat larger than the domestic cat its face is relatively long and slender with white lines above and below their bright yellow eyes with a dark spot just below each eye near the nose. Ears are quite long, and relatively broad at the base, pointed towards the end, and set quite high. Colour of the fur varies with subspecies, yellowish-grey to reddish-brown or tawny-grey, and is ticked with black; spinal crest richer and darker. Kittens’ fur has visible vertical bars, which vanish with the age, although a few dark markings may be retained on the limbs or tail. The muzzle, throat and belly are pale cream color and their winter coat is darker and denser than the summer coat.

Jungle cat’s skull is fairly broad in the region of the zygomatic arch or cheek bone, which leads to its appearance of having a rounder head than some other cats. Felis chaus has equal-sized claws on both, fore and hind limbs, which allows it climbing down trees as easily as climbing up.     

True to Bergmann’s Rule, felids are largest at the northern limits of their range and become smaller-bodied closer to the tropics. Body length of jungle cat ranges from 50 to 94 cm, plus a short 20 to 31 cm long tail having several dark rings along its length and a black tip, and the animal stands about 36 cm tall on shoulders. Weight varies across their range from 3 to 16 kg, with a median weight of around 8 kg. For example, in west Israel, they weigh 43 per cent more than those in east India. Black jungle cats are regularly seen in southeastern Pakistan and India. Males are little larger than females.

Distribution and habitat

Jungle_Cat_area (Attribution - Chermundy; IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and CC BY-SA 3.0)The jungle cat has a broad but patchy distribution throughout its range. They are largely oriental in distribution and in Africa they are found in Egypt, along the Nile River Valley south to Aswan, in El Faiyum, Farafara, Dakhla and Kharga oases. They also occur in West, Central and South Asia, Sri lanka and Southeast Asia. In India the cat is found almost throughout the country, ranging up to 2,400 m (8,000 ft) in the Himalayan foothills or perhaps higher in the mountains, and is the most common small cat among the felidae found there. In tropical and sub-tropical Asia they are found widely through Southeast Asia to southern China, but are known to be absent from Malayan peninsula south of the Isthmus of Kra, the possibility of their occurrence was reported from a highly fragmented forest in the Malaysian state of Selangor in 2010.

Their habitat includes tropical dry forests and savannas. Despite the name, jungle cats are not strongly associated with the classic rainforest “jungle” habitat; instead they prefer wetlands – habitats with water and dense vegetative cover, particularly reed swamps, marsh, and littoral and riparian environments. Hence it’s other common and more applicable name, the swamp cat. Cat’s preferred living conditions with water and dense ground cover can be found in various habitats, ranging from desert (where it is found near oases or along riverbeds) to grasslands, shrubby woodland and dry deciduous forest, as well as cleared areas in moist forest. They avoid cold climate as they do not survive well in areas where winter snowfall is common. They are adaptable felids, found even in dry steppe, open country, often around villages, irrigated cultivation and altered landscape. For instance, they have been observed in sugar cane plantations in India and around pisciculture ponds and irrigation ditches in Israel.

Density estimates from natural tugay (also spelt tugai) habitat in central Asia range from 4-15 individuals per 10 sq km, but where this vegetation type has declined due to development density does not exceed two cats per 10 sq km. Tugay habitat is a form of riparian forest or woodland associated with fluvial (term used in geography and geology       to refer to the processes associated with rivers and streams and the deposits and landforms created by them) and floodplain areas subject to periodic inundation, and largely dependent on floods and groundwater rather than directly from rainfall.

Jungle Cat (Attribution - Maria-Teresa Cortes Garcia & CC BY 3.0)Although never domesticated in the true sense, a small number of these cats has been found among the cat mummies of Ancient Egypt (the vast majority of which are domestic cats), suggesting that they may have been used to help control rodent populations.

The countries where cat is found include India; Nepal; Sri Lanka; Afghanistan; Bangladesh; Bhutan; Pakistan; Armenia (Armenia); Thailand; Viet Nam; Azerbaijan; Cambodia; China; Egypt; Georgia; Iran, Islamic Republic of; Iraq; Israel; Jordan; Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Lebanon; Myanmar; Russian Federation; Syrian Arab Republic; Tajikistan; Turkey; Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Subspecies and their distribution

When Johann Anton Güldenstädt, a Baltic German naturalist and explorer in Russian service, travelled in the Russian empire’s southern frontier during 1768–1775 on the command of Yekaterina Alexeevna or Catherine II or Catherine the Great (the most renowned and the longest-ruling female leader of Russia) he was the first naturalist to observe a Kirmyschak in the Caucasus. He named the animal as Chaus and wrote about it in his Latin description of 15 pages, which was published in 1776. The Latin name was retained for the cat by all successive zoologists.

Today, the trinomial Felis chaus chaus still refers to the jungle cat subspecies living in the Caucasus, Turkestan, Chinese Turkestan, Baluchistan, Iran and Yarkand. The other recognized subspecies are listed by year of first description:

  • Felis chaus affinis (Gray, 1830) — occurs in the Himalayan region ranging from Kashmir and Nepal to Sikkim and Yunnan.
  • Felis chaus kutas (Pearson, 1832) — occurs from Bengal westwards to Kutch.
  • Felis chaus nilotica (de Winton, 1898) — found in Egypt.
  • Felis chaus furax (de Winton, 1898) — occurs in Iraq, Palestine and southern
  • Felis chaus maimanah (Zukowsky, 1914) — first described from Maimanah in northern Afghanistan and found in the region south of the Amu Darya River.
  • Felis chaus fulvidina (Thomas, 1929) — occurs Southeast Asia ranging from Myanmar and Thailand to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
  • Felis chaus prateri (Pocock, 1939) — occurs in western India and Sindh.
  • Felis chaus kelaarti (Pocock, 1939) — found in Sri Lanka and southern India south of the Krishna River.
  • Felis chaus oxiana (Heptner, 1969) — occurs along the right tributaries of the Amu Darya River, in the lower courses of the Vakhsh River ranging eastwards to the Gissar Valley and slightly beyond Dushanbe.

Ecology and behavior

Hard to tame, even if taken into captivity at a young age, jungle cats are solitary in nature outside of mating season, however, family groups (male, female and cubs) are not uncommon. Although, they are often active at night, are less nocturnal compared to many other cat species. In cold weather they are often seen sunbathing during the day. Jungle cats usually rest in other animals’ abandoned burrows, humid coves under swamp rocks, tree holes or in areas of dense vegetation.

It is estimated that these cats travel 3 to 6 km every night, although this likely varies depending on the availability of prey. Like other cats, territories are maintained by urine spraying, scent marking, which also includes cheek rubbing during which cats leave their saliva that serves as a scent marker for other cats. Like most cats they are also good climbers and use not only sight and hearing while hunting, but also their sense of smell. While running, they tend to sway from side to side.

Jungle Cat skull (public domain)Their diet consists mostly of animals weighing less than a kilogram. Rodents are the prey found most frequently in their feces and stomach contents. They provide up to 70 per cent of the cat’s daily energy intake. A study in India’s Sariska reserve has found that the cats can catch and consume three to five rodents each day. Second on the menu are birds, but in the southern Russia waterfowls constitute the major part of their diet in the winter. Other prey species taken more opportunistically are hares, frogs, nutria, squirrels, juvenile wild pigs, sub-adult gazelles and chital fawns and various reptiles, including lizards, turtles and snakes. When they venture into human habitation they prey on domestic chicken and ducks. Though they can catch fish by diving in ponds and rivers, but mostly swim in order to disguise their scent trails, or to escape threats, such as dogs or humans. They have been observed to be capable of swimming as much as 1.5 km at a time. In India they have also been seen scavenging on the kills of large predators such as the Asiatic lions, whereas in southern Uzbekistan it has been found that the fruits of Russian olive constitute up to 17 per cent of their diet in winter.

True to their feline trait, they hunt by stalking and ambushing, like most other cats. For this they use reeds or tall grass as cover. They are adept at leaping, and sometimes attempt to catch birds in flight. Although they can run at a speed of up to 32 k/hour (20 mph), they rarely pursue their prey that escapes their initial pounce.

While the jungle cat’s main competitors are jackals and other smaller felids, their most common predators are bears, wolves, crocodiles and other larger felines like tigers and leopards. Whenever there is a threat, jungle cats normally vocalize before engaging in attack, producing small roars, a behavior uncommon for domestic cats. The meow of the jungle cat is also somewhat lower than that of a typical domestic cat. Vocalization in these cats consists of meowing, chirping, growling, hissing, purring, gurgling and barking. Since these noises have not been significantly studied, therefore, their meanings are not well understood.

In some cases, they jump on their attacker, but soon retreat upon encountering larger threats. There have been known cases of jungle cats attacking curious humans near their habitat, but these attacks are neither very dangerous nor life threatening.

Reproduction

Jungle cat’s mating season is marked by shrieks and fighting among males. Intense mew calls are used by both the sexes to attract potential mates. Boundaries of territories are marked with urine or body odour so that potential mates can find each other. Vocalization rates of both sexes increases prior to copulation and they may have multiple different mates throughout their lives.

Males and Females are sexually mature at the age of 11-14 months; estrus appears to last from January through to mid-April. In males, spermatogenesis (process in which spermatozoa are produced from male primordial germ cells by way of mitosis and meiosis) occurs mainly in February and March. Mating in southern Turkmenistan occurs in January to early February.

To keep her offspring safe and secure mother prepares a den in a hollow tree, an abandoned animal burrow or reed bed. Once the necessary arrangements are made female gives birth to a litter of three to five kittens, usually three. Blind and helpless kittens are born between December and June, depending on the local climate. Kittens are quite large at birth weighing 43 to 160 grams, averaging 131 g, they gain weight at a rate of about 22 g per day. Sometimes females raise two litters in a year. Gestation period lasts 63 to 66 days and is remarkably short for an animal of this size.

Kittens’ eyes open after ten to thirteen days and they are fully weaned by around three months. As cubs, jungle cat have markings on their body which help camouflage them from potential predators. In the wild males usually do not participate in the raising of offspring, but in captivity they have been observed to be very protective of their young, more than the females, or males of other cat species. Kittens start hunting on their own at around six months, and leave their mother after eight or nine months, although only half the size of a mature adult, they are independent. They reach sexual maturity at 11 to 18 months of age.

The jungle cat’s median life expectancy in captivity is ten to twelve years. In the wild, however, some jungle cats have been known to live for as long as twenty years.

Threats

Apart from the natural habitat, jungle cats can also do well in artificial wetlands and in cultivated landscapes (especially those that lead to increased numbers of rodents). However, reclamation and destruction of natural wetlands, ongoing throughout its range but particularly in the arid areas, still pose a threat to the species, as density in natural wetlands is generally higher. Indiscriminate trapping, poisoning and snaring in and around agricultural and settled areas have caused population declines in many areas throughout the cat’s range. India, in the past, exported large numbers of jungle cat skins before the species came under legal protection (over 300,000 were declared as being held by traders there when export was banned in 1979), some illegal trade still continues there, as well as in Afghanistan and Egypt.

Some populations of jungle cat subspecies are declining in several countries and areas:

  • Populations of the Caucasian jungle cat found in the Cis-Caspian region, along the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus range states have been rapidly declining since 1960s. It is considered threatened and included in the Red Books of the Russian Federation, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Only some small populations are surviving today. There are no records of sightings of the cat in the Astrakhan Nature Reserve in the Volga Delta since the 1980s.
  • Since early 1990s, Southeast Asian jungle cats have suffered drastic declines due to hunting and habitat destruction. In 1970s, this subspecies used to be the most common wild cats near villages in certain parts of northern Thailand and occurred in many protected areas of the country, but today, their official Thai status is critically endangered. In Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia it probably once occurred widely using secondary habitats, which is easily accessible to hunters and where hunting pressure is now very high. Due to indiscriminate trapping and snaring, the subspecies appear quite rare nowadays in comparison to sympatric small cats. Skins are infrequently recorded in border markets, and live individuals, possibly taken from Myanmar or Cambodia, occasionally turn up in the Khao Khieo and Chiang Mai zoos of Thailand.
  • Already rare in Middle East, jungle cats in Jordan are highly affected by expansion of agricultural areas around the river beds of Yarmouk and Jordan rivers, where they are hunted and poisoned by farmers for attacking poultry. In Afghanistan too they are rare and threatened.

Conservation

Listed on CITES Appendix II, the ecology and status of Felis chaus is poorly known. Habitat destruction and persecution by humans are the main threats the cat is facing. With the increase in human population, more and more land is being cultivated and natural habitat is being converted to farmlands. Although the cat is quite adaptive, still the altered environments do not support the same density of cats. Besides, farmers are also not friendly towards them; they often hunt and poison them for preying on their poultry. They are also poached for their fur.

Although the laws have been implemented in various countries to protect them, but illegal trade is still continuing. Hunting is prohibited in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, China, Israel, Myanmar, Tajikistan, Turkey and Thailand. It is not covered under legal protection outside protected areas in Bhutan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Georgia, Nepal, Laos, Lebanon and Myanmar. For instance, during the first decade of this century more than 3,000 jungle cat skins have been seized from various places around the world.

The jungle cat is considered quite common in some parts of its range, predominantly in India, and also to some extent in Pakistan and Bangladesh. In southern China and Southeast Asia (with the exception of northeastern Cambodia), however, it seems quite rare in contrast to sympatric small cats. This rarity appears comparatively a recent phenomenon linked to unselective trapping and snaring, particularly in Lao PDR and Thailand as well, where it was described as common few years back, but has since suffered severe declines and is rarely encountered.

The species is considered threatened in a number of range states in Europe and the Caucasus, and is included in the Red Books of the Russian Federation, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia (IUCN 2007). Europe has witnessed a large scale decline in numbers, with small populations surviving in Cis-Caspian region and the Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. Population in the continent has been fast declining since 1960s. No sightings have been reported from Astrakhan State Reserve (Russian Federation) since 1980s. In Northern Ossetia (Russian Federation) only about 150 animals were recorded. Noticeable population variations are characteristic of this species in this region, possibly because of the absence of adaptations to cold winters. Notwithstanding these fluctuations the long-term trend in Europe is of decline in both population and area of occupancy. Records from Russia indicate that there are about 500 animals left in the wild and a very small population lives on in Georgia.

In the countries of Southwest and Southeast Asia, where the cat has become rare and still showing declining trend, more research needs to be undertaken to gain knowledge of current distribution, both in and outside the protected areas. At present, the cat is placed under the species of “least concern” category by the IUCN, despite the fact that the numbers are declining. Now it has become necessary that the conservation measures should include better protection for domestic fowl and halting of indiscriminate poisoning and trapping. Protection of natural wetlands and reedbeds, especially, in the more arid areas of the cat’s range, and improved and more stringent legislation prohibiting fur trade is need of the hour to save the cat.

Taxonomic history

Johann Anton Güldenstädt was the first to describe Felis chaus and his work was published in 1776. After this, between 1811 and 1939, various other naturalists published their descriptions of jungle cat skins from west and further southeast of the Caucasus.

German explorer Peter Simon Pallas, using the scientific name Felis catolynx, described lynx-like cats in 1811, which were found in the reeds and subalpine forests around the Terek River through northern Persia up to the Aral Sea. In 1820s another German explorer Wilhelm Peter Eduard Simon Rüppell or simply Rüppell collected a female Felis Chaus near Lake Manzala in the Nile Delta. But only in 1832, Johann Friedrich von Brandt, a German naturalist, recognized the distinctness of the Egyptian jungle cat and proposed the name Felis Rüppelii.

An English soldier and naturalist who was in India for 46 years, Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, published his work Illustrations of Indian Zoology (1830–35), which contained the first drawing of an Indian jungle cat named the “Allied cat” Felis affinis by Gray in 1830. Two years after this, a stuffed cat was presented at a meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal that had been caught in the jungles of Midnapore in West Bengal. Pearson who donated the specimen described it as different in colour from Felis chaus and proposed the name Felis kutas. In 1836, Brian Houghton Hodgson, a pioneer naturalist and ethnologist who worked in India and Nepal as a British civil servant, proclaimed the red-eared cat commonly found in Nepal to be a lynx and named it Lynchus erythrotus. In 1844, Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, a French zoologist, described a jungle cat from the area of Dehradun in northern India under the name Felis jacquemontii in reminiscence of the French explorer Victor Jacquemont. When the Ceylonese (Ceylon is the older name of Sri Lanka) naturalist and physician Lieutenant Colonel Edward Frederick Kelaart described the first Felis chaus skin from Sri Lanka in 1852, he emphasised its close resemblance to Hodgson’s Lynchus erythrotus.

The Russian explorer and naturalist Nikolai Alekseevich Severtzov proposed the generic name Catolynx in 1858. The Austrian zoologist Leopold Joseph Franz Johann Fitzinger proposed the scientific name Chaus Catolynx for the “swamp lynx” in 1869. Also William Thomas Blanford, an English geologist and naturalist, pointed out the lynx-like appearance of cat skins and skulls from the plains around Yarkand and Kashgar when he described Felis Shawiana in 1876. The German naturalist Grevé proposed the subgenus Lynx Chaus in 1895.

In 1898, the British zoologist William Edward de Winton studied the collection of jungle cat skins in the Natural History Museum and modified taxonomic assessments of the jungle cat group. He suggested that the specimens from the Caucasus, Persia and Turkestan be subordinated to Felis chaus typica, and regrouped the lighter built specimens from the Indian subcontinent to Felis chaus affinis. He also renamed the Egyptian jungle cat Felis chaus nilotica as the name Felis Rüppelii was already being used for a different cat. A single skin collected in 1864 near Jericho, a city near Jordan River in the West Bank, prompted him to describe the new subspecies Felis chaus furax as this skin was smaller than other Egyptian jungle cat skins. A few years later, a German zoologist and paleontologist Alfred Nehring also described a jungle cat skin collected in Palestine, which he named Lynx chrysomelanotis.

In the 1880s, some mammal skins were collected during an expedition to Afghanistan and presented to the Indian Museum. Of these one cat skin without skull from the area of Maimanah was initially identified as of Felis caudata, but in the absence of skins for comparison the author was not sure whether his identification is correct. In his revision of Asian Wildcat skins that were in the Zoological Museum of Berlin, German zoologist Zukowsky reassessed the Maimanah cat skin, and because of its larger size and shorter tail than caudata skins proposed a new species with the name Felis (Felis) maimanah.

In 1917 Reginald Innes Pocock, a famous British zoologist, re-examined the generic nomenclature of the Felidae and classified the jungle cat group as part of the genus Felis, which is characterized by broad heads, reduced rhinarium (moist, naked surface around the nostrils in most mammals) vertically contracted ocular pupil, pointed ears and narrow paws. When the mammal collector of the Natural History Museum and the British zoologist Oldfield Thomas described the first jungle cat from Annam, a French protectorate encompassing the central region of Vietnam, in 1928 he consented with Pocock and referred to Gray’s “Allied cat” by naming it Felis affinis fulvidina.

Pocock reviewed the Natural History Museum’s jungle cat skins and skulls from British India and adjacent countries in 1930s. On the basis of differences in fur length and colour he subordinated the specimens from Turkestan to Balochistan to Felis chaus chaus, the ones from Cutch to Bengal under Felis chaus kutas, the Himalayan ones to Felis chaus affinis, and the tawnier ones from Burma under Felis chaus fulvidina. He newly described six larger skins from Sind under the trinomen Felis chaus prateri, and skins with shorter coats from Sri Lanka and southern India under Felis chaus kelaarti.

Results of an mtDNA analysis of 55 jungle cats from a variety of biogeographic zones in India suggest a high genetic variation and a relatively low differentiation between populations. It seems that the Central Indian F. c. kutas population separates the Thar F. c. prateri populations from the rest and also the South Indian F. c. kelaarti populations from the North Indian F. c. affinis ones. The Central Indian populations are genetically closer to the southern than to the northern populations. Thar is the world’s 9th largest subtropical desert in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent and forms a natural boundary running along the border between India and Pakistan. It is also known as the Great Indian Desert.

Hybrids

Felis chaus can be domesticated under certain conditions. Breeders have been able to hybridize it with certain domestic cats, producing such breeds as the “chausie” (cross between jungle cat and domestic cat) and the “jungle bob” (hybrid created from jungle cat and pixie bob). Pixie-bob is a breed of domestic cat claimed by breed founder Carol Ann Brewer of Washington State to be the progeny of naturally occurring bobcat hybrids. However, DNA testing has failed to detect bobcat marker genes. Pixie-bobs are considered wholly domestic for the purposes of ownership, cat fancy registration, import and export.