Flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps)
Muul and Lim (13) said the flat-headed cat is the ecological counterpart of a semi-aquatic mustelid. The cat seems to be adapted to a semi-aquatic, fish-eating lifestyle (4). It has specialised features to help it catch and retain aquatic prey, to which it is at least as well adapted as the fishing cat. The long, slender body has delicate, lengthened extremities. The elongated, flattened head is more cylindrical than in the domestic cat. The sides of the long, sloping snout are laterally distended. The distance between the eyes and ears is comparatively great. The nasals are short and narrow, the rostrum is long and narrow and there are nearly parallel tooth rows. The large, brown eyes are very far forward and close together, compared with other cats, giving improved stereoscopic vision. The small, rounded ears are set widely apart and are lower than the apex of the skull. The cat has relatively powerful, long, narrow jaws and has sharper teeth than its close relatives. The well developed sagittal crest and robust zygomatic arches indicate great biting power. The very long, pointed, backward-facing teeth help the cat catch and hold slippery prey such as fish and frogs. The canines are nearly as long as in a cat double the size (4) The well-developed first and second upper premolars are larger and sharper relative to other cats and are specialized so the cat can seize and grip slippery prey with the front of its mouth. The legs are fairly short with long, narrow feet. The claws are retractable, but the covering sheaths are so reduced in size that about two-thirds of the claws are left protruding (2) The inter-digital webs on the paws help the cat gain better traction as it moves about in muddy environments and water and are more pronounced than those on the paws of the fishing cat and have long, narrow foot pads (6). Males are slightly larger than females. The male has a head-and-body length of 42- 50 cm, a tail length of 13-20 cm and weight of 1.5-2.75 kg; the female head-and-body length is 33-37 cm, the tail length 15-17cm and the weight averages 1.5 kg. The long, thick fur is reddish-brown on top of the head, dark roan brown on the back and mottled white on the undersides, which are spotted and splashed with brown. The face is lighter in color than the body and the muzzle, cheeks and chin are white. The eyelids and inner side of each eye are whitish but do not form a complete eye-ring. Two dark stripes run along each side of the head, one from the corner of the eye to below the ear and the other from below the eye to below the ear. Two buff whitish streaks run on either side of the nose between the eyes. The lower vibrissae are white, while the upper vibrissae are black at the base and white at the tips. The hair between the ears is short. The insides of the limbs are reddish-brown, fading towards the feet. Individual hairs have white, buff or grey tips, giving a grizzled appearance.
The cat occurs sporadically in Sumatra, Borneo and the Malayan peninsula (Malaysia and extreme southern Thailand) (1). It is mostly a lowland primary tropical forest or scrub species, living on or near riverbanks, streams, swampy areas, oxbow lakes and riverine forests up to 700 m above sea level (2,6,9,19). It also occurs in peat-swamp forest (9), mud-banks, secondary forest (9) and disturbed primary and secondary forests and in flooded areas. In Malaysia, it also lives in oil palm plantations (5,6,14). Over 80% of the records gathered by Wilting et al. (5) were from elevations below 100 m above sea levll; over 70 % were within 3 km of larger water sources.
The cat seems to be nocturnal, being seen at night or early morning, near water (6,9). Captives may be more crepuscular (2). It is probably solitary, maintaining its territory by scent-marking. The eyes are farther forward on the head and closer together than those of other cats. This maximizes binocular vision, helping the cat find and catch food in water. The cat probably maintains territories by scent-marking. Most cats point their rear ends at a tree or bush, raise their tails to an upward position in order to spray urine. Captive flat-headed cats raise their tails to half-mast, crouch with their hind legs and walk forward while leaving a trail of urine on the ground (18). Some calls may resemble the vibration made by pulling a thumb along the teeth of a comb, but others may resemble those of the domestic cat. Adults purr and produce other short-range vocalizations (16). Kittens may make sounds like those of a domestic cat.
The cat probably feeds mainly on fish, as well as frogs and crustaceans, found along mud-banks and in rivers (2). It can submerge its head up to 12 cm under water to seize prey. It has been suggested that it can survive in oil-palm plantations by hunting rodents (1). Captives preyed on live frogs but ignored sparrows in their cages. Individuals often 'wash' objects in water. Captives snarl as they pounce on food. They carry it at least 2 m away from where it is presented. This may stop fish and frogs escaping back into the water. Captive adults may grope along the bottom of a pool with their forepaws spread wide, like raccoons.Captive adults kill rats and mice with a bite to the nape but quickly toss the rodent between bites, repeating the action again and again. The cat may take birds, small rodents and domestic poultry (6). As the cat is so rare, its role as a predator likely has little impact on the population dynamics of prey species. Captives show much greater interest in potential prey in the water than on dry land, suggesting a strong preference for riverine hunting in their natural habitat (13) A mouse in a bathtub excited captives more than one on dry land, as the cats stood in the water or next to the tub and tried to fish out the mouse with their mouth or paws.
The cat is host to flatworms and roundworms. Its nocturnal behaviour and coloration probably help to reduce the risk of predation.
Litters in captivity consist of one or two kittens (1), but the cat may have litters of one to four kittens, as adult females have four sets of teats. A kitten was found in the wild in January and it is thought that the gestation period is about 56 days (2). The young are probably altricial. The mothers nurse the cubs until weaning is complete. Captives live up to 14 years (1,2,6).
The Red List Assessment of the species is 'Endangered' (2,17) on CITES Appendix I (5); until 2008, it was classified as Insufficiently Known. It is fully protected by national legislation over most of its range, with hunting and trade prohibited in Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand (6) and hunting regulated in Singapore (14), but no legal protection is afforded in Brunei, Borneo (7). The cat has a patchy distributrion and was declared extinct in 1985, until it was sighted in Malaysia. It was seen on the Merang River in southeast Sumatra in 1995 (2), where fishermen described it as common (9), although they tend to use a single generic term for both flat-headed and leopard cats (10). The primary threat is wetland and lowland forest and mangrove destruction and degradation (3,5,6) to create human settlements and plantations. Other threats include draining for agriculture; water pollution by oil, organochlorines and heavy metals linked with agricultural run-off and logging activities, which contaminate prey (14); hunting, wood-cutting, fishing and the expansion of oil palm plantations (5,7). Wilting et al. (5) found no support that this cat can live in oil palm plantations and suggested that over 70% of its predicted historical suitable habitat has been transformed to unsuitable habitats. If the cat is adaptable and can survive in palm-oil plantations, it could cope with considerable habitat disturbance and its future may be less bleak (5). Trapping, snaring and poisoning are also threats (2). E. Bennett (2) said skins were often seen in longhouses in Sarawak; skins have doubtful economic importance, but body parts are valuable. Flat-headed cats are captured in traps set out to protect domestic fowl (6). The effective population size could be below 2,500 mature individuals, with no subpopulation having an effective population size above 250 (15). Rates of habitat loss and the threatened status of many wetlands in its range suggest a continuing decline in the population of at least 20% over the next 12 years (2 generations). The cat may be especially vulnerable due to its apparent association with watercourses (1), which are often exploited to be used for settlements and agriculture (3). Conservation of this cat depends on habitat protection and better understanding of its ecology and status in lowland and wetland forests with species specific field surveys focusing on these habitats. Like some other small cats, it was placed in the genus Felis, but is now considered one of five species in Prionailurus. (1,14).The flat-headed cat was placed in the genus Felis by Vigors and Horsfield, who described it in 1827 from Sumatra (4) In 1951, Ellerman and Morrison-Scott grouped Felis planiceps with Felis viverrina, the fishing cat, as being distributed in Lower Siam, the Malay States, Sumatra and Borneo, and recorded from Patani (32). In 1961, it was subordinated to the genus Prionailurus by the German biologist Weigel who compared fur pattern of wild and domestic felids (11). In 1997, researchers from the National Cancer Institute confirmed this taxonomic ranking following their phylogenetic studies (8). Flat-headed cats are very rare in captivity; ISIS records fewer than 10 captives, all kept in Malaysian and Thai zoos (3)
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- 7) IUCN Cats Red List workshop assessment (2007)
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- 12) Ellerman, J. R., Morrison-Scott, T. C. S. (1966) Checklist of Palaearctic and Indian mammals 1758 to 1946. Second edition. British Museum of Natural History, London, p. 314.
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- Other references
- Cameron, T. 1928. On Some Parasites of the Rusty Tiger Cat (Felis planiceps). Journal of Helminthology, 6/2: 87-98.
- Francis, C. (2001) A Photographic Guide to Mammals of South-east Asia including Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Java, Sumatra, Bali and Borneo. ISBN 1859745075
- Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Animal Diversity Web (online). http://www.animaldiversity.org
- Peters, G., B. Tonkin-Leyhausen. 1999. Evolution of acoustic communication signals of mammals: friendly close-range vocalizations in Felidae (Carnivora). Journal of Mammalian Evolution, 6/2: 129-159.
- "Prionailurus planiceps" (2010). ARKive. http://www.arkive.org/flat-headed-cat/prionailurus-planiceps/.
- Wilting, A., Cord, A., Hearn, A. J., Hesse, D., Mohamed A., Traeholdt, C., Cheyne, S. M., Sunarto, S., Jayasilan, M., Ross, J., Shapiro, A. C., Sebastian, A., Dech, S., Breitenmoser, C., Sanderson, J., Duckworth, J. W., Hofer, H. (2010b). "Modelling the Species Distribution of Flat-Headed Cats (Prionailurus planiceps), an Endangered South-East Asian Small Felid". PLoS ONE 5 (3): 1-18; e9612. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009612. PMC 2840020. PMID 20305809.
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