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The rusty-spotted cat is the smallest feline in the world. It is endemic to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, and mostly resides in dry, deciduous forests. With large eyes adapted to its nocturnal lifestyle, it hunts for small mammals. Though mostly carnivorous, this feline is an opportunistic omnivore and will feast on fruits, grains, and vegetables, as well.
At about half the size of a domestic cat (Felis catus), the rusty-spotted cat is considered the smallest wild cat species in Asia and rivals the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) as the world’s smallest wild cat.
Rusty-spotted cats average about 35-48 centimeters, or 14-19 inches in length. The bushy tail is about half the length of the head and body at about 15-30 centimeters, or 5.9 to 11.8 inches. The rusty-spotted cat weighs only 0.9 to 1.6 kilograms, or 2-3.5 pounds.
Rusty-spotted cats display sexual dimorphism as full grown females can weigh up to 1.4 kilograms, but full grown males can reach up to 2 kilograms. For about the first 100 days of development, males are smaller in size than females, but after that time, males have a greater average body weight.
The head and ears of the rusty-spotted cat are small and rounded and they have relatively large eyes for their size. The rusty-spotted cat’s expansive eyes may be an adaptation to its nocturnal behavior.
The fur of the rusty-spotted cat is short and soft with a brownish fawn-gray color tinged with a reddish grey, rusty, rufous tint. The coat of the Sri Lankan subspecies (Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi) is less gray and has more of a russet color. The chin, throat, inner side of the limbs, underside, belly, and chest are white with tiny darker brown spots and stripes while the back and sides are covered by rusty red-brown spots and blotches which merge into lines. The paws and tail are uniform reddish grey. The soles of the feet are black while the tail is more rufous than the body and faintly marked with dark rings.
There are four dark stripes that run over the rusty-spotted cat’s eyes with two of them extending between the ears, backward over the head to the neck, and onto the shoulders. Six dark streaks are on each side of the head, extending over the cheeks and forehead. The cheeks of the face are marked by two streaks of darker fur and the cat’s relatively large eyes are marked with a white streak along the inside edge. There are horizontal bars on the legs and chest, as well as a rusty band on the chest.
The longest lifespan recorded of the rusty-spotted cat was at the Frankfurt zoo with a cat reaching 18 years of age.
SEXUAL DIMORPHISMLarger Males
BODY LENGTH35-48 cm. / 13-20 in.
BODY MASS1-2 kg. / 2-3.74 lb.
DENTAL FORMULAI ³⁄3, C ¹⁄1, P ²⁄2, M ¹⁄1, ×2 = 28
GENERATION LENGTH4 yr.
The rusty-spotted cat’s close relative is the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis).Phylogenetic analysis of the nuclear DNA in tissue samples from all Felidae species revealed that the evolutionary radiation of the Felidae began in Asia in the Miocene around 14.45 to 8.38 million years ago. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA of all Felidae species indicates a radiation at around 16.76 to 6.46 million years ago.
The Prionailurus species are estimated to have had a common ancestor between 8.16 to 4.53 million years ago, and 8.76 to 0.73 million years ago. The rusty-spotted cat possibly genetically diverged from this ancestor between 6.54 to 3.42 million years ago. Both models agree in the rusty-spotted cat having been the first cat of this lineage that diverged, followed by the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) and the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus).
Three subspecies of the rusty-spotted cat are recognised: Prionailurus rubiginosus rubiginosus in India and Nepal, Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi in the Wet forest zone of Sri Lanka, and Prionailurus rubiginosus koladivius in the lowland dry zone of Sri Lanka.
The coat of the Sri Lankan subspecies (Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi) is less gray and has more of a russet color than the other subspecies.
SUBSPECIES (3)P. r. rubiginosus (Indian, Mainland, Nepal), P. r. koladivius (Sri Lankan Dry-Zone), P. r. phillipsi (Forest, Sri Lankan Wet-Zone)
The rusty-spotted cat is named for the reddish grey, rusty, rufous coloration of its coat as well as the many spots and blotches that dot its pelt.
In Sri Lanka, the rusty-spotted cat is known as kola diviya or balal diviya.
Felis rubiginosa was the scientific name used by Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in 1831 for a rusty-spotted cat specimen from Pondicherry, India. Prionailurus was proposed by Nikolai Severtzov in 1858 as a generic name. Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi was proposed by Reginald Innes Pocock in 1939 who described a specimen from Central Province, Sri Lanka and subordinated both to the genus Prionailurus.
ALTERNATERusty Spotted Cat
MALEGib, Tom, Tomcat
Compared to other species, rusty-spotted cats have a relatively restricted distribution and only occur in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
The cat’s prime habitat is found in three broad regions in India, which indicates a fragmented population. The species was originally thought to occur only in the southern part of India, but records are now known from across the country.
The northern-most location where the species has been sighted is in the Pilibhit forest division in the Indian Terai region in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
The first sighting of the animal in Central India was in the Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharastra. The cat has since been spotted in many parts of Maharastra, including West Maharastra where a breeding population was identified. The species is also found in the Varushanad Valley, Western Ghats, part of a biodiversity hotspot.
Rusty-spotted cats also live in the state of Gujarat, where they occur in semi-arid, dry, tropical, and deciduous forests in the center of the state and also in the city of Navagam. These cats inhabit the the Nugu Wildlife Sanctuary, state of Karnataka, the Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve in Andhra Pradesh, and other parts of Andhra Pradesh, such as the Nellore district.
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.
EXTANTIndia, Nepal, Sri Lanka
Rusty-spotted cats mainly inhabit deserts, savannas, grassland, shrubland, forest, and artificial terrestrial habitats. They reside in dry deciduous forest areas, but some of their habitat is in semi-arid and tropical climates. It has also been observed in mixed forests of eucalyptus and natural forest, moist forests, tropical thorn forests, scrub forests, and grasslands. In Sri Lanka, it is found in humid forests and arid coastal belts. The cat also seems to be cave dwelling in some parts of its range.
The rusty-spotted cat 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.
The rusty-spotted cat shows some tolerance for modified habitat and has been found in the midst of agricultural and settled areas. However, large stretches of irrigated agriculture could limit their distribution. Within the last few years, a breeding group of rusty-spotted cats was found living in a human-inhabited agricultural area in West Maharashtra, India. In southern India, the species is being found in rafters of abandoned houses in areas a considerable distance away from forests. 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. This species, along with other small cat species in the oriental region, may be surviving in agricultural areas because of their high numbers and the availability of large rodent populations.
FORESTSubtropical/Tropical Dry, Subtropical/Tropical Moist Montane
ARTIFICIAL/TERRESTRIALPastureland, Subtropical/Tropical Heavily Degraded Former Forest
There is little information available on the behavior 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. When rusty-spotted cats were first brought to the Frankfurt Zoo, they were presumed to be nocturnal because most sightings had been at night or at early dawn and late evening. They were then placed in a nocturnal environment in the zoo, but after monitoring the behavior of the cats, it was shown that the species may not be strictly nocturnal or crepuscular. Sexually active animals were more active during daylight hours.
The rusty-spotted cat is a solitary animal and lives alone.
The species is considered terrestrial, but has arboreal tendencies. It is described as a very active and agile feline and 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, stones, or even caves.
Communications between rusty-spotted cats are scent-oriented. Both males and females spray urine for scent-marking.
The home range of rusty-spotted cats has not been determined, but in a related species of similar size, the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), females have home ranges of about 1.8 square kilometers, while males control a territory of around 3.0 square kilometers.
The diet of the rusty-spotted cat has not been properly documented, but it’s known to be a mostly carnivorous omnivore. 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.
Adult rusty-spotted cats of the Sri Lankan subspecies (Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi) have been observed eating birds and mammals and occasionally catching a domestic chicken in the wild.
An adult rusty-spotted cat in the Frankfurt Zoo is fed a daily diet consisting of beef muscles in large chunks and small strips, beef heart, two-day-old chicks, one mouse, and 2.5 grams of carrot, apple, boiled egg, and cooked rice. In the zoo, the animals are also given daily mineral supplements and weekly multivitamins, and vitamins K and B are added to the diet twice per week. The animals are occasionally fed banana, germinated wheat, or fish.
On one occasion, a male adult cat at the zoo killed a rabbit weighing 1.77 kilograms. The cat at the time weighed 1.6 kilograms and the night after the killing ate 320 grams of the muscle meat.
Wild-caught kittens in the zoo were fed protein-rich mash, mice, rats, minced beef muscle, and heart at 7 weeks old. The kittens at this time rejected the day-old chicks that were offered.
Very little is known about the rusty-spotted cat’s reproduction and all the information comes from captive individuals. The mating system of rusty-spotted cats has not been explicitly studied.
Though the mating system of rusty-spotted cats has not been explicitly studied, data available from their close relatives, leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis), suggests that this species may be polygynous. One male leopard cat’s territory overlaps with several female territories, but territories of two females or two males never overlap. A territorial male can mate with all females within his territory.
However, in zoos, rusty-spotted cat males have been allowed to stay with females after mating and after the birth of kittens. The West Berlin Zoo recorded a male protecting young from zoo keepers and bringing meat to the kittens. These behaviors suggest their mating system may be monogamous.
Rusty-spotted cats mate year-round. Data indicates that 50% of young are born between July and October, which is not enough to consider rusty spotted cats seasonal breeders. Captive individuals are recorded to begin mating activity at anywhere from 1 to 72 days after introduction with an average of 7.8 days. In 49% of first introductions, mating occurred within 4 days. There is no evidence that the time between introduction of the male and mating has anything to do with the age of the female, time elapsed from the weaning, physical characteristics of the male, or the season.
The mating activity of the rusty-spotted cat lasts from 1 to 11 days and estrus usually lasts for 5 days. As in other small cats, mating includes a nape bite and straddling. Males average 7.64 mounts per hour, with each mount less than a minute long.
In Sri Lanka, female rusty-spotted cats were observed to give birth in hollow trees or under rock cliffs. Females with kittens have also 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 found in sugarcane fields during harvest. Females in the Frankfurt Zoo repeatedly chose birthing spots that were on the ground. Birthing boxes were offered in both low- and higher-level areas, but the lower boxes were used.
The gestation period of the rusty-spotted cat lasts between 65 to 79 days and each litter has from 1 to 3 offspring. Within an hour after birth, the mother leaves her young where she birthed them to eat and defecate.
Mother rusty-spotted cats are not known to translocate their young or to carry food to them, but will, at least initially, remove their feces from the den.
Young rusty-spotted cats start to come and go from the birth site between 28 and 32 days. When the young emerge, they already have well-developed locomotion abilities, as reflected in their climbing onto and jumping down from wooden posts in the Frankfurt Zoo.
Play has been observed between rusty-spotted cat siblings and between the young and mother, which appears crucial to locomotion development. Most interactions between the mother and young are play-oriented. In one case, a mother rusty-spotted cat died when her offspring was only 5 weeks old. The kitten never learned to climb downwards headfirst and continued to climb down backwards indicating extended juvenile learning periods occur.
Young rusty-spotted cats appear to tire quickly even when their mother remains active. At first, the young sleep near or on their mother, retreating to where the mother lies down after her activity period, but as they get older, they sleep on high ledges alone.
Between 35 and 42 days of age, weaning starts, and the young can climb downwards head first from steep branches. Between 47 and 50 days of age, the young can jump about 50 centimeters from a height of about 2 meters. The young start to eat meat at around 40 days of age, but suckling was still observed up to day 60.
In the Frankfurt Zoo, the young were removed from their mother between 3 and 9 months, but late removal never resulted in aggression between mother and offspring.
BREEDING INTERVAL1 Year
ESTROUS CYCLE5 Days
SEXUAL MATURITY1 Year
The rusty-spotted cat has many predators such as jackals, foxes, and other cat species which may occasionally kill it. It is speculated that mating activity could increase their vulnerability, selecting for brief copulations.
Rusty-spotted cats are largely carnivorous and likely play a role in controlling populations of small vertebrates. If individuals in the wild eat fruits, as is observed in the zoo setting, then rusty-spotted cats might benefit plants through the distribution of their seeds in fecal matter.
There are currently no known benefits of rusty-spotted cats on humans, but more research is needed.
The rusty-spotted cat does not fare well in captivity and only a few are held in zoos outside its natural distribution. The West Berlin Zoo and Frankfurt Zoo, both located in Germany, have been crucial to rusty-spotted cat observation and conservation. The zoos have provided information on the rusty-spotted cat’s lifespan and longevity, mating system, paternal care, nesting preference, development and growth, aggression, behavior, and diet.
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. A declining prey base due to overhunting may also negatively affect this cat and hybridization with domestic cats (Felis catus) is a possibility in some areas.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, rusty-spotted cats are classified as Near Threatened and have an estimated combined population total in India and Sri Lanka of under 10,000 mature individuals. There is no subpopulation with more than 1,000 breeding individuals.
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 population densities and dynamics are only poorly known and its exact distribution is not yet clear, but new localities that host this species are found with more research, increasing the known range of the species.
MATURE INDIVIDUALSLess than 10,000
The rusty-spotted cat’s declining trend is due to habitat loss characterized by a decline in natural forest environments and an increase in agricultural areas. The main threat of deforestation is due to the spread of agricultural clearing and large-scale irrigated agriculture, as well as 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.
A declining prey base due to overhunting may also negatively affect this cat and hybridization with domestic cats (Felis catus) is a possibility in some areas.
At least in India, rusty-spotted cat deaths have occurred because the species is vulnerable to vehicular slaughter. However, the economic impact and number of cat deaths are minimal at only 2.8% occurrence of all vehicular mammal deaths observed.
The lack of knowledge about the rusty-spotted cat’s status and distribution may hinder its effective conservation.
RESIDENTIAL & COMMERCIAL DEVELOPMENTCommercial & Industrial Areas
AGRICULTURE & AQUACULTUREAnnual & Perennial Non-Timber Crops
ENERGY PRODUCTION & MININGMining & Quarrying, Renewable Energy
TRANSPORTATION & SERVICE CORRIDORSRoads & Railroads
BIOLOGICAL RESOURCE USEHunting & Trapping Terrestrial Animals
HUMAN INTRUSIONS & DISTURBANCEWork & Other Activities
NATURAL SYSTEM MODIFICATIONSOther Ecosystem Modifications
INVASIVE & OTHER PROBLEMATIC SPECIES, GENES, & DISEASESDiseases of Unknown Cause
The rusty-spotted cat population occurring in India is included into the Appendix I of CITES and the population of Sri Lanka and Nepal in Appendix II of CITES. It is fully protected over most of its range as 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 in Nepal.
Future studies should focus on the rusty-spotted cat’s status, threats, distribution, and ecology. In this regard it would also be important to look at its ability to adapt to agricultural landscapes.
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