Rusty Spotted Cat: World’s smallest cat and its role in ecology


We all know that the world’s biggest cat, the tiger, is found in India. But did you know that the world’s smallest cat is found here as well? It’s called the Rusty spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus), which is found only in India (P. phillipsi) and Sri Lanka (P. rubiginosus), and is very rare to sight.

I remember back in 2005, we found a road kill of a very tiny cat near the Ranthambhore reserve. I was with two experienced wildlife veterans, and they said that in their five-decade-long roaming experience, they had never seen this species before. But over the last 9-10 years, I have spotted this species at least five times in that very area. Last week, I not only saw it but also got a decent picture.

While the tiger weighs over 300 kg or so, this cat weighs no more than 1.5 kg. Twenty years ago, a renowned wildlife scientist, AJT Johnsingh, reported its sighting from Gir forest and after that many reports came from various other forests as well. Possibly, the number of reported sightings increased because awareness about the species among wildlife enthusiasts has also increased.

The recent sighting was my longest and, this time, I could observe the cat’s behaviour at length. I was driving down the road that goes to Ranthambhore reserve from Sawai Madhopur town, exactly at the place where I had seen the road kill a decade ago.


           A road kill of Rusty spotted cat near Ranthambhore Tiger reserve 

I saw two twinkling eyes as I approached and I turned my car in the direction, and found that the small cat had climbed up a Vachellia tree. Then it climbed down from that tree and climbed another. After scaling the thorny tree, it sat looking intently down on the ground, possibly searching for some rodent. Then it climbed down and started stalking the bushes, I managed to take few pictures before it disappeared in bushes.

Later, when I checked my pictures, I found that Rusty is a grizzled brownish-grey in colour marked with rust brown spots. Its head is small, rounded and marked with two white streaks on the inner edges of the eyes, and six dark streaks on each side of the head, extending over the cheeks and forehead. Its legs are short but the unmarked tail is slightly long and bushy. It can easily climb thorny trees and its small size helps it walk in thickets of spiny bushes.


The entire forest patch in that area is full of Vachellia leucophloea trees and I remembered that a year ago I had also saw that the cat on a Vachellia tree at a different place. This indicates the cat’s arboreal nature, which possibly other cats like — jungle cats and caracals do not posses in normal situations. Other predator cats rarely overlap this ecological niche of thorny trees with thin branches. Clearly, the beautiful cat may be smaller, but is no way lesser in the role that it plays in the ecology.

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