When it comes to publicity for protecting wild cats, the big ones get the lion’s share of attention and funding. The 7 big cat species are some of the best known animals in the world: lions, tigers, cheetahs, leopards, snow leopards, jaguars, and pumas (also known as cougars or mountain lions). And with good reason; big cats are dangerous and charismatic, and play crucial predator roles in their ecosystems. But what about the world’s other wild cats? There are 33 known “small cat” species around the world that are just as important and deserve just as much attention.
For your consideration: African golden cat, African wildcat, Andean cat, Asian golden cat, bay cat, black-footed cat, bobcat, Canada lynx, caracal, Chinese mountain cat, Clouded leopard, Eurasian lynx, Eurasian wildcat, fishing cat, flat-headed cat, Geoffroy’s cat, guigna, Iberian lynx, jaguarundi, Javan leopard cat, jungle cat, leopard cat, manul, marbled cat, margay, northern tigrina, ocelot, Pampas cat, rusty-spotted cat, sand cat, serval, southern tigrine, and Sunda clouded leopard.
How many of these species have you even heard of before? I research and communicate about biodiversity, and I was only familiar with about 10 of them before sitting down to write this post. To be fair, some of them were discovered even more recently than the saola, so we haven’t had much time to get to know them. I don’t have enough space to properly introduce you to all 33, but I can at least make a start. So here are 5 of the coolest little cats out there.
Cats hate water, right? Wrong. Fishing cats are almost always found near water, particularly in or near wetlands, and as their name suggests, their diet is primarily fish. They are known to grab fish out of the water, dive in after them, and even swim relatively long distances (underwater!). Fishing cats are found in patches across southern Asia, with populations in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The IUCN lists them as “vulnerable”, as their wetland homes often get taken over for agriculture or urban development.
Manul (Pallas’ cat)
The manul is one of the better known small cats, thanks to its meme potential. The manul can look majestic when photographed at the right angle, but more often than not, they appear to be making derp faces. Their expressive faces are relatively flat, and they have round pupils like us, so it’s easy to anthropomorphize them and assign our own emotions to them. They’re also one of my favorite animals ever, and one of my life goals is to photograph them in the wild. This might be a challenge though; they live in the difficult-to-access steppes of central Asia, and manul populations have declined due to demand for their thick fur in China, Mongolia, and Russia. Fortunately though, manul fur trading has been outlawed and we have amazing videos like this one to show people how special these puffballs are.
The margay bears a striking resemblance to its larger cousin the ocelot, but is its own distinct species. Margays are smaller and much better at tree climbing, with flexible ankles that allow them to climb down trees headfirst and feet that can turn up to 180 degrees. This allows them to hunt all manner of arboreal creatures in their native South and Central American rainforests. They’re smart too; researchers in Brazil reported hearing a margay mimic the call of a baby tamarin to try to lure the other monkeys closer for hunting. The attempt was apparently unsuccessful, but this is the only known occurrence of predator using auditory mimicry for hunting purposes, and has been compared to tool use in primates as an indicator of intelligence. Margays are threatened by habitat loss and by the exotic pet trade.
Sand cats were in the news last year when researchers managed to capture the first ever film footage of sand cat kittens. The reason the film footage was such a big deal (aside from the kittens being super adorable) was because sand cats are extremely difficult to track and find. They’re perfectly adapted for staying hidden in their desert environments, with sand-colored fur and special hairs on their feet that render their tracks nearly invisible. They also have thick fur to keep them warm when desert temperatures plunge at night, they get most of their water from their prey (desert rodents, birds, reptiles, and insects), and their hearing is about 5 times better than a domestic cat’s. Sand cats are found throughout the deserts of northern Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia.
The name “serval” comes from the Latin term “cervalis”, meaning “deer-like”. And it’s appropriate – servals have the longest legs relative to body size of any cat, big or small. Those long legs come in handy for chasing down prey (usually small animals like rodents, birds, and sometimes reptiles) in sub-Saharan savannah ecosystems in southern Africa. Occasionally they’ll go after slightly larger prey like duikers and young antelopes. Servals, like their larger and more famous relatives like lions and leopards, are important predators that help balance food webs and maintain biodiversity. They’re also relatively efficient hunters with a 50-60% success rate (as opposed to the lion’s mere 10%). Servals have been kept as pets for thousands of years, as seen in Ancient Egyptian art (note that the Wild Focus Project does not condone keeping wild animals as pets).