Marbled Cat : A ‘mini clouded leopard’

Marbled Cat (photo - Johan Embréus) CC BY 3.0

Marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), found in South and Southeast Asia, is one of the most attractive species, from the point of view of beauty, mystery and rarity. This small wild cat has been listed as vulnerable by IUCN since 2002, as it is found at low densities, and its total effective population is believed to be fewer than 10,000, with no single population reaching more than 1,000 individuals. Earlier the species was considered to belong to the pantherine lineage of “big cats”, but the later genetic analysis has proved its close relation to the Bay Cat and the Asian Golden Cat, all of which diverged from the other felids about 9.4 million years ago.

Genetic studies of Marbled Cat’s blood serum, confirmed that it shares an identical karyotype (number and appearance of chromosomes in the nucleus of a eukaryotic cell) with Uncia, Lynx and Panthera leaving its evolutionary history somewhat of a taxonomic puzzle. Perhaps, it is similar in form to the forest ancestor of the big cats some 10 million years ago. However, it may have also diminished in size more recently due to competition with other big cats.

Miniature version of clouded leopard

Miniature version of clouded leopard in appearance, it is similar to a domestic cat in body size, but with a longer and thickly furred tail. Highly adapted to arboreal life, it uses its tail to balance the body while jumping from one branch to another. Its arboreal adaptations suggest that it is probably the Old World ecological equivalent of the Margay Cat.

It ranges from 45 to 63 cm in head-body length; with a tail measuring 35 to 55 cm. Recorded weights vary between 2 and 5 kg. The texture of the thick fur is extremely soft and rich and varies in background colour from dark grey-brown through yellowish grey to red-brown. The back and flanks are marked with dark, irregular dark-edged blotches, which are suggestive of clouded leopard’s but more blurred, are never similar in size and shape on different specimens. The dark, large, irregular, brown or black blotches are edged on one side only with a lighter shade of brown than the general background which varies from a dull olive gray to russet brown according to individual differences.

The head is relatively small, with very large and beautiful eyes and small rounded ears. Spots on the forehead and crown fuse into narrow longitudinal stripes on the neck, and irregular stripes on the back. Tail is marked with black spots proximally and rings distally. Lower part of front legs and hindquarters are spotted with black dots on a lighter background than the rest of the body. The hind legs are extremely long and slender. Besides the long tail, the cat can also be recognized by its large feet. Like the clouded leopard, the Marbled Cat also possesses unusually large upper canines, which appear to be the result of parallel evolution. While standing or resting, it assumes a characteristic position with its back arched.

Distribution and habitat

Marbled Cat distribution area (Attribution - Chermundy & IUCN Red List)

The cat’s range superposes more or less that of two other felines: the larger clouded leopard (neofelis nebulosa) and the more common leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). Evidently versatile and highly adaptable Marbled cat ranges from the high and snowy forests of Sikkim (India), Nepal, eastward into southwest China and Bhutan where it overlaps the habitat of another rare and secretive member of the feline family, the snow leopard (panthera uncia), down through Assam (India), Burma (now known as Myanmar), Laos, North and South Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and all the way south to the hot and humid rain forest of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo. They are primarily associated with moist and mixed deciduous-evergreen tropical and secondary forests.


Two subspecies of this felid are recognized:

  • P. m. marmorata — described by William Charles Linnaeus Martin, an English naturalist, in 1836 — found in Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo northward to Myanmar.
  • P. m. charltoni — described by John Edward Gray, a British zoologist, in 1846 — found in northern Sikkim, Darjeeling (both in India), Myanmar and Nepal.

Ecology and behavior

Almost nothing is known about the behavior and habits of the cat in the wild. For some unexplained reasons the species seems to be exceptionally rare everywhere across its enormous native range. Reports from Asia suggest it is by far the rarest and most secretive feline in its natural haunts.

Whatever little information we have about the cat is from a female, which was trapped in May 2000 in a hill-evergreen/bamboo mixed forest of Phu Khieu Wildlife Sanctuary in Thailand. After putting a first-ever radio collar on any Marbled cat, it was released back in the wild and was tracked by a team of biologists who discovered that it had an overall home range of 5.8 sq km at an altitude of 1,000 to 1,200 meters. They also found that it was active mainly during crepuscular and nocturnal time periods.

Marbled Cat

They are believed to be solitary cats that spend much of their time in trees as forest canopies possibly provide them with much of their prey, which include squirrels, birds and other tree-dwelling mammals. Other animals that are part of the cat’s diet include reptiles and rodents. Their vocalization is comparable to domestic cats.

Whatever information is available about its breeding is from captive animals. A few cats that have been bred in captivity have been found having a gestation period of 66 to 82 days. In the few recorded instances, two kittens, weighing 61 to 85 g each, were born in each litter. Their ears unfold from their head at 5 days and eyes open at around 12 days, and they begin to take solid food when they are about two months old, around the time that they begin actively climbing. Marbled cats reach sexual maturity at the age of about 22 months and have been found living up to 12 years in captivity.


Habitat destruction, indiscriminate and large scale snaring rampant throughout much of its range poses major threat to the cat. Though the cat is valued for its meat, skin and bones, but is occasionally observed in the illegal Asian wildlife trade. During a survey conducted in the Lower Subansiri District of Arunachal Pradesh (India), a marbled cat was seen that had been killed by a native hunter for a local festival celebrated by the indigenous Apatani community every year in the month of March and April. Dead cats are used in ceremonies during the festival, and their blood is sacrificed to the deity for the goodwill of the family and for ensuring good harvest, protection from wild animals, disease and pests.


Marbled cat is included in CITES Appendix I and has been protected over parts of its range. Hunting is prohibited in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, Yunnan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Myanmar. In Lao PDR and Singapore hunting is regulated. In Brunei and Bhutan it is not legally protected outside the protected areas. No information about protection status is available from Vietnam and Cambodia.

The only captive marbled cats registered by International Species Information System (ISIS) are a pair kept at a breeding center in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

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