CatSG

Flat-headed cat

Prionailurus planiceps

IUCN Red List: Endangered

Weight: ca. 2 kg
Body length: 45-52 cm
Tail length: 13-17 cm
Longevity: up to 14 years
Litter size: 1-2 cubs

Description

The flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) is part of the genus Prionailurus based on genetic analysis.

The flat-headed cat looks partly like a civet rather than a felid with its long and narrow head and a flattened forehead. Its ears are small and rounded and set well down on the sides of the head. It has noticeably large, close-set eyes which provide maximal binocular vision, suggesting a nocturnal activity pattern. The anterior upper pre-molars are larger and sharper relative to other cats. The fleshy sheaths that cover a cat’s claws are shortened in the flat-headed cat so that only about one third of each claw is covered when retracted. While the flat-headed cat’s claws do not rub against the ground when walking, they are always visible. Its feet are long and narrow and its toes are more completely webbed than those of the fishing cat, a closely related species, which is also known to feed on aquatic prey. The pads are long and narrow. The very pointed and relatively longer and sharper teeth than its close relatives indicate some adaptations to at least some level of aquatic activity and a piscivorous diet (fish-eating). A more developed premolar is characteristic of mammals that hunt slippery prey as it provides a better grip. Its feet and other features make it the ecological counterpart of a semi-aquatic mustelid.

Its tail is short, measuring only about a quarter of the cat’s head and body length, and is heavily furred. The underside of the tail is light in colour. The flat-headed cat’s fur is thick, long and soft. Its colour is reddish brown tinged with grey. The top of the head is more brightly red than the body. The hairs are tipped with white, which gives its fur a silvery appearance. Its chin, muzzle and belly appear white. Its face is lighter in colour than the body and two prominent whitish streaks run on either side of the nose.

Other names

Language/Country

Name

French

chat à tête plate

German

Flachkopfkatze

Indonesia

kucing hutan, kucing dampak

Malaysia

kucing hutan

Myanmar

gauung bya kyaung

Thailand

maew pa hua baen

Spanish

gato cabeciancho

Status and Distribution

The flat-headed cat is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. The flat-headed cat is endemic to the Sunda region. It is found on Sumatra, Borneo and on the Malayan Peninsula extending into southern Thailand. However, it is possibly extinct in Thailand. Very little is known about the flat-headed cat and the understanding of its current distribution is based on a comparably low number of occurrence records. It is generally seldomly seen and is believed to be rare. Its distribution is thought to be very patchy and to be highly localized around water bodies. No density estimates exist so far. Fishermen along the Merang River in south Sumatra describe the flat-headed cat as common but they often use the same term for the flat-headed cat and the leopard cat which is more abundant. The flat-headed cat has been recorded most often in Sabah in northeastern Borneo along the Kinabatangan River and photographed by camera traps in the Deramakot and Tangkulap Forest Reserve in 2008 and 2009. In 1995, the flat-headed cat was recorded close to the Merang River and in 1996 a flat-headed cat was captured in primary freshwater swamp forest in the Berbak Naitonal Park. In 2004, three flat-headed cats were observed in the Maludam National Park in Sarawak, Malaysia. In 2005, one individual was recorded in the East Kalimantan during a night survey, while in 2006 two flat-headed cats were sighted in the Loagan Bunut National Park, Sarawak Malaysia. In 2009, there was on flat-headed cat observation in Central Kalimantan in the Sabangau peat-swamp forest in Borneo. In 2011, a flat-headed cat was accidentally trapped in the mangrove area of Kampung Buntal in Sarawak, Malaysia. More recently, the flat-headed cat has been camera trapped in East Kalimantan and the Pasoh Forest Reserve in Peninsular Malaysia.

Extant distribution area of the flat-headed cat (IUCN Red List 2015).

Habitat

The flat-headed cat inhabits tropical lowland rainforests, swampy areas, marshes, lakes, streams, peat-swamp forest and riverine forest with most collection records from riparian habitats. Generally, it is closely associated with wetlands and watercourses and almost all photo records are from extreme lowland areas, mainly below 100 m and close to large water sources. The flat-headed cat has also been observed in secondary forest and the few records from oil palm plantations were always from close proximity to forested areas. 

Ecology and Behaviour

Very little information is available on the flat-headed cat’s ecology and behaviour. It is believed to be a solitary, nocturnal and crepuscular animal. All observations of individuals were made at night or in the early morning. Behavioural observations come exclusively from the few individuals kept in captivity, as the flat-headed cat is extremely difficult to observe in the wild. In captivity, flat-headed cats enjoy a basin of water, playing or simply sitting in it for hours. They also have been observed to wash objects as raccoons do. Most sightings of flat-headed cats have been of them walking on riverbanks. The flat-headed cat has also been observed swimming across rivers. Similar to other cats it sprays urine marks, but does so unlike any other cat: it walks forward in a crouching position leaving a trail on the ground.

Very little is known about its reproduction. One young was born in January, and the gestation period lasts for approximately 56 days. 

Flat-headed cat hunting in captivity.
Waiting for its prey.
Trying to catch a fish.
Flat-headed cats have no problem with submerging their head under the water.

Prey

The flat-headed cat is thought to prey mainly on fish and frogs but it possibly also eats small rodents such as mice and rats, crustaceans, birds or fruits. The flat-headed cat has also been reported to take domestic poultry. The particular dental structure of this small cat helps it grab and hold the slippery main prey items that it hunts. It takes live fish with its head fully submerged and usually carries its prey at least two meters away before consuming it. This suggests a feeding strategy to avoid letting aquatic prey escape back into water.

Main Threats

The main threats to the flat-headed cat are habitat loss and degradation, especially through the expansion of oil palm plantations. There are some indications that flat-headed cats occur in secondary forest but there is very little evidence that it is found in oil palm plantations. Secondary forests and oil palm plantations show the highest degradation rates and a very low percentage are protected by law. Southeast Asia has the world’s highest deforestation rate (e.g. over 1.3 million hectares of lowland forest are deforested annually on the island of Borneo) with Malaysia and Indonesia being among the largest palm oil producers. Other causes for the habitat destruction are forest transformation to other kind of agricultural plantations, human settlements, draining for agriculture, wood-cutting and the building of large dams in some areas. It has been predicted that likely over 70% of the historical habitat of the flat-headed cat is currently transformed to such an extent that it has become unsuitable. Over 45% of protected wetlands and 94% of the globally significant wetlands in Southeast Asia are assumed to be threatened.

Another important threat throughout the flat-headed cat’s range is the contamination of its prey through water pollution associated with agricultural run-off and logging activities, especially by oil, organochlorines and heavy metals. In many wetlands in Asia, depletion of fish stocks from over fishing is prevalent. Snaring and poisoning are also threats to the flat-headed cat.

A constraint to the flat-headed cat’s conservation is the lack of information about its status, distribution and ecology. 

Conservation Effort and Protection Status

The flat-headed cat is included in Appendix I of CITES and is fully protected over most of its range. Hunting and trade are prohibited in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Hunting is regulated in Singapore and there is no legal protection in Brunei.¨

More research is needed to evaluate if flat-headed cats use oil palm plantations or if they are only forced to pass through the plantations due to the fragmentations of their habitats. There is also generally an urgent need for further research on the status, ecology, distribution, threats and conservation needs of the flat-headed cat across its range.