CatSG

Rusty-spotted cat

Prionailurus rubiginosus

IUCN Red List: Near Threatened

Weight: 1-2 kg
Body length: 35-48 cm
Tail length: 20-25 cm
Longevity: up to 18 years
Litter size: 1-3 cubs

Description

The rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) is the smallest of all cats occurring in India and about half of the size of a domestic cat. The coat of the rusty-spotted cat is short and soft. It is fawn-grey coloured with a rufous tinge and is patterned. There are horizontal bars on the legs and chest. The head is rounded and their relatively large eyes are marked with a white streak along the inside edge. Its large eyes may be an adaptation to its nocturnal behaviour. Each cheek is marked with two dark streaks and four dark stripes extend from above the eyes backward over the head to the neck. The back and sides are marked with red-brown blotches which merge into lines. The belly, chest and throat are white and covered with large dark spots and bars. The ears are rounded and small. Its tail is about half the length of the head and body, more rufous then the body and faintly marked with dark rings.  The soles of the feet are black.

Other names

Language/Country

Name

French

chat rougeâtre, chat rubigineux, chat-léopard de l'Inde

German

Rostkatze

India (Gujarati; Kannada; Tamil)

bitari billi; kaadu bekku; namali pelli

Spanish

gato rubiginosa, gato rojizo

Sri Lanka (Sinhalese; Tamil)

Handun diviya; Kadu poona, verewapuni

Status and Distribution

The rusty-spotted cat is classified as Near Threatened in the IUCN Red List. Its population densities and dynamics are only poorly known and its exact distribution is not yet clear. The rusty-spotted cat has been described as widespread but nowhere common as indicated by the patchy and infrequent nature of collections and observations. Its prime habitat is found in three broad regions in India, which indicates a fragmented population. The species was thought to occur only in the southern part of India, but today records are known from across the country. It has recently also been reported from the Terai region of India in Uttar Pradesh and also from Bardia National Park in Nepal, bordering India.

The rusty-spotted cat was also reported from the island Sriharikota in the Nellore District where it was sighted in a mixed forest of eucalyptus and natural forest. According to the tribal Yanadis, the rusty-spotted cat is common there and stays in the forest and does not venture into the villages or prey on poultry. 

Compared to other species, rusty-spotted cats have a relatively restricted distribution and only occur in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. 

Extant distribution area of the rusty-spotted cat (IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016).

Habitat

The rusty-spotted cat inhabits moist and dry forests, tropical thorn forests, scrub forests, grasslands and rocky areas. It seems to prefer dense vegetation and rocky areas. It is likely absent from evergreen forests and has not been reported from the tropical montane rainforest in India. There are few records from montane and lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka it is also found in humid forests and in arid coastal belts. The rusty-spotted cat shows some tolerance for modified habitat and has been found in the midst of agricultural and settled areas. Females with kittens have been found denning in a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and in the attics of houses in southern India surrounded by paddy fields and coconut plantations. In West Maharashtra rusty-spotted cat cubs were also found in sugarcane fields during harvest. Rusty-spotted cats have also been observed close to and within villages and apparently on farmland throughout southern India’s Deccan Plateau and on the outskirts of Bangalore city. However, large stretches of irrigated agriculture could limit their distribution.

Ecology and Behaviour

There is little information available on the behaviour and the ecology of the rusty-spotted cat. The rusty-spotted cat seems to be nocturnal as most observations have been at night. During hours of sunshine it lies in a hollow log, tree or thicket in small woods of heavy timber or in thick scrub-jungles. The rusty-spotted cat is described as very active and agile and as a good climber. It is frequently seen in trees and was observed pouncing down from tree branches when hunting prey. However, it probably hunts mainly on the ground. When the rusty-spotted cat is threatened it flees into the trees or takes shelter in gaps of big boulders or stones. The rusty-spotted cat also seems to be cave dwelling in some parts of its range. 

Very little is known about the rusty spotted cat's reproduction and all the information comes from captive individuals. Estrus lasts for 5 days and the gestation period for around 65-69 days. 

Rusty-spotted cat, India.
Rusty-spotted cat kitten.
Rusty-spotted cat resting.
Rusty-spotted cat hunting.
Rusty-spotted cat kittens.
Rusty-spoted cat resting.

Prey

The diet of the rusty-spotted cat has not been properly documented. Its main prey is reported to be small mammals, such as rodents, and birds. It also takes insects, lizards and frogs opportunistically, and occasionally poultry. In the Gujarat area, rodents were recorded as its main prey.

Rusty-spotted cat carrying a rodent in its mouth.
Rusty-spotted cat with its prey.

Main Threats

The main threats of the rusty-spotted cat are habitat loss and deforestation, especially due to the spread of agricultural clearing and large scale irrigated agriculture as well as due to the conversion of habitat into urban areas, industry development and mining. Moreover, parts of the Central Indian landscape are rapidly converted for establishing solar plants. Despite the records of rusty-spotted cats from cultivated and settled areas, it is not sure if they can persist long-term in such cultivated landscapes. The occasional predation on poultry makes the rusty-spotted cat vulnerable to persecution and it is occasionally killed for food or for the fur trade. The rusty-spotted cat has many predators such as jackals, foxes and other cat species which may occasionally kill it. A declining prey base due to overhunting may also negatively affect this cat and hybridization with domestic cats is a possibility in some areas.

The rusty-spotted cat does not fare well in captivity and only a few are held in zoos outside its natural distribution.

The lack of knowledge about its status and distribution may hinder its effective conservation. 

Conservation Effort and Protection Status

The rusty-spotted cat population occurring in India is included into the Appendix I of CITES, the population of Sri Lanka and Nepal into Appendix II of CITES. It is fully protected over most of its range. Hunting and trade are prohibited in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. However, domestic trade in Sri Lanka is uncontrolled.

The rusty-spotted cat occurs in the protected areas of Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, and, among others, Sariska and Ranthambore Tiger Reserves, the Gir Forest National Park, Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, in India and the Bardia National Park, Nepal.

Future studies should focus on its status, threats, distribution and ecology. In this regard it would also be important to look at its ability to adapt to agricultural landscapes.