Big cats get the lion’s share of our attention. We admire their power, felicity of movement, and striking coats of spots and stripes. But the majority of cat species alive today are small – there are more than thirty species of little cats that prowl landscapes from the Sahara Desert to Siberian forests. And while they might look like the moggies that purr and cuddle on our laps at home, these cats are wildly different, adapted to mimic the calls of their prey, spring astounding distances into the air, and blend into the jungle so thoroughly that even scientists have trouble finding them. Here’s a look at some of the world’s cats that are smaller, but in no way lesser:
The little, spotted cat Leopardus guttulus doesn’t have a common name yet. That’s because researchers didn’t even know this species existed until last year. Genes were key to detecting the cat’s existence.
Found in the tropical rainforest of southern Brazil, Leopardus guttulus was thought to be a population of a particularly adorable feline named the oncilla. But a study of the cat’s genetics showed that it wasn’t interbreeding with oncilla populations and had become genetically distinct despite looking quite similar. Leopardus guttulus is a “cryptic species” given away by DNA.
The margay is among the many small, spotted cats of Central and South America, but this nocturnal hunter has a clever ability that hasn’t yet been seen in any of its neighbors.
Margays are adept at hunting among the rainforest trees, where they try to nab anything from frogs to squirrels. But the cat is also capable of setting a trap. A 2009 study reported that a margay mimicked the call of a small monkey called a pied tamarin to lure the primate closer. The cat’s attempt was foiled that time, but the fact that the margay tried to fool the monkeys shows that it’s a very clever kitty.
Borneo’s bay cat is so elusive that it took over a century before researchers got a chance to study a live one in detail. Covered in striking, rust-red fur with white under the tail and face stripes, this cat was officially named in 1874 on the basis of a skull and torn skin sent to England by the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Naturalists didn’t have a chance to study a live one until a bay cat was captured in 1992, and the cat remains so difficult to find that researchers know very little about how this secretive cat actually lives. The fact that the cat is so difficult to find is all the more frustrating because conservationists list the felid as endangered. The deforestation of Borneo may wipe out the bay cat before scientists get a chance to find out more about it.
Found among the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, the serval looks like a cat on stilts. Immediately recognizable by its long legs and large, rounded ears, this graceful felid’s stretched-out look is perfectly suited to detecting and pouncing on prey in the tall grass. Capable of jumping 12 feet into the air, servals can nab fleeing birds in mid-air and get the drop of scurrying small mammals. And this cat’s genetic legacy isn’t restricted to the savannah. Cat breeders have created a domestic cat-serval cross called the Savannah cat, and they’ve become accepted enough that The International Cat Association now recognizes them as a championship breed.
These felines are the original grumpy cats. Found over a wide swath of central Asia, Pallas’ cats have short ears and fluffy faces that give them a perpetually miffed look. That’s befitting their temperament – like many other small felids, Pallas’ cats are mainly solitary hunters that wait in ambush until an unwary pika or partridge comes within pouncing range. Sadly, though, these puffy cats are coming under increasing threat. While currently listed as near threatened, continued hunting, accidental poisoning, and habitat degradation complicate the Pallas’ cat’s future.
Small, it may be, but the jaguarundi has a close connection to bigger cats. Genetic clues indicate that this cat’s ancestor arrived in the Americas sometime between 8 and 8.5 million years ago. That ancestral species kicked off an explosive radiation of New World cats, including the genus Puma – the genus to which the Jaguarundi belongs. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the wide-ranging cougar belongs to the same genus and is the jaguarundi’s closest living relative. The family connection isn’t quite so apparent at a glance, though. Found in grasslands and forests from Texas to Argentina, the jaguarundi only gets to be about 30 inches long and sports coats of either rust red or gray.
Southeast Asia’s flat-headed cat is one of the oddest looking felids. The combination of big eyes and little ears give this multi-colored cat a civet-like appearance, but that cute muzzle also hides a set of conical canines much longer than would be expected for such a small cat. The felid puts those teeth to work on wriggling fish and other slippery aquatic prey in the forests of Sumatra, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula, although how long it may keep doing so is unclear. A 2010 assessment of the cat’s chance at survival noted that over 70 percent of its habitat has been destroyed by human settlement and agriculture, and researchers expect that the cat’s populations will keep shrinking as development continues. If the flat-headed cat is to be saved, conservationists have little time left.
While technically a subspecies of Asia’s leopard cat, the Iriomote cat is peculiar in that it is only found on the Japanese island of the same name. At 109 square miles around, the island offers limited space for the solitary, brown- and gray-mottled cats. That presents conservationists with a frustrating problem. The Iriomote cat is currently listed as critically endangered, with less than 250 of these unique cats still in the wild. Separated from other leopard cat populations by the sea, the challenge is to find a place for these rare felids to survive in the forested hills of their home.
The sand cat is certainly a contender for the most extreme little felid. Rather than inhabiting forest or grassland, these tawny cats inhabit arid deserts in northwestern Africa and southwest Asia. And befitting such harsh environments, the sand cat has some peculiar adaptations that it allow it to live where other cats could not. In addition to a dense coat of fur that insulates them from chilly nighttime temperatures, the sand cat has peculiar strands of black hair on their paws to protect their toes from searing sands. Their special feet can frustrate researchers, though. In addition to keeping their feet safe, the special hairs make the sand cat’s tracks nearly invisible.
Compared to other small cats around the world, the wildcat looks rather plain. They’re not so different from the purring felines that live in our homes. There’s a good reason for that. Wildcats are the probable ancestors of the housecats, with the genetic trail for the split between wild and domestic cats going back to about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. The cats live elsewhere – from western Europe through southern Africa and Asia. Wildcats are a little larger, are stockier, and have longer tails than their domestic descendants, but they are the recognizable template from which our domestic moggies descended.