For our first entry into the brand-new blog series, Small Cat Spotlight, we’re bringing you one of the world’s rarest and most endangered cats: the flat-headed cat. This elusive feline, which earned its name from its flattened forehead, has rarely been observed in the wild. They are at risk from habitat loss and illegal trade and are considered Southeast Asia’s most threatened small felid. Although classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, some scientists believe that there may be more flat-headed cats out there than we’ve caught on camera.
In partnership with local NGOs, Panthera is currently conducting flat headed cat surveys in two areas in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo to understand their population numbers and how they are responding to threats such as logging, poaching, and agricultural development. Keep reading to learn more about this wild cat and how Panthera is working to protect their populations with new research and conservation efforts.
The flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) is considered one of the most unique and unusual members of the cat family, with their long narrow head, flattened forehead, and eyes that are unusually far forward and close together. Thought to be most closely related to the leopard cat and fishing cat, they have a short, tubular body with relatively short, slender legs and a stubby tail. These felines come in various shades of brown with facial markings and banding on their legs and belly and soft dense fur. They have rounded ears on their small, compact head. Flat-headed cats have closely-set large eyes, leading us to believe that these felines are nocturnal. Like their relatives the fishing cat, flat-headed cats have long narrow feet with webbed toes. They use these adaptations, as well as their sharp oversized teeth, to catch fish and other aquatic prey.
Distribution and Habitat:
The flat-headed cat is generally associated with wetlands and waterways as almost all photo records of this feline come from extreme lowland areas close to water sources. They can live in tropical rainforests, swampy areas, marshes, lakes, streams, peat-swamp forest and riverine forests. There are some reports of flat-headed cats spotted in secondary forest and oil palm plantations, suggesting they are tolerant of some form of habitat modification. The limited and restricted range of the flat-headed cat includes Borneo, Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia, and possibly southern Thailand on the Thai-Malaysia border (but they have not been detected here since 1995.)
Ecology and Behavior:
The flat-headed cat is one of the world’s least known felids and its ecology in the wild is largely a mystery but it’s believed to be a solitary, nocturnal and crepuscular animal. The species’ unique morphology, behavior and habitat preferences suggest it is adapted to forage for aquatic prey in shallow water and along muddy riverbanks. All recorded observations of individuals, both direct and indirect, have been made at night or early in the morning. Of all the Southeast Asian felids, they are the least frequently photographed in camera trap surveys; only around 40 camera trap records exist for the species compared to the many hundreds of thousands for all other Southeast Asian cat species. This suggests very low densities, although camera traps are usually targeting larger cats and their habitats. It is therefore possible they are more common than suggested by camera trapping.
Status and Threats:
The flat-headed cat is classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List and is one of the rarest wild cats in the world. Many authorities consider them to be Southeast Asia’s most threatened small felid. Flat-headed cats are only known from a handful of physical records and sightings. This is likely due to a combination of rarity and sampling bias, but even with markedly increased survey effort in the last decade, there are only a few sites where the species is repeatedly recorded, for example the Deramakot Forests Reserve and the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.
Having a small range and limited habitat variety puts the flat-headed cat at a disadvantage. The moist, forested habitats these cats tend to prefer are quickly being lost to agricultural expansion, including for the infamous palm oil industry. The habitat they have left is constantly threatened by overfishing and freshwater pollution (from mining and agricultural projects). On top of all that, there is evidence that illegal trade for skins and kittens for the pet trade are driving numbers down as well. The flat-headed cat already has limitations from their range and habitat so that this combination of human activities makes their populations even more vulnerable.
Borneo contains a number of landscapes that are critical for flat-headed cats, including the Deramakot-Tankulap Forest Reserve complex and the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. However, continued degradation and modification of these forests is putting the future of these cats, along with bay cats and Sunda clouded leopards, at risk. In both landscapes, we are conducting monitoring surveys to determine population numbers of the three small cat species and understand how they are affected by logging, agricultural expansion and poaching. Additionally, we provide training in wildlife survey techniques and law enforcement patrols to the local communities, NGO partners and local government to increase the capacity to safeguard the survival of the small cat species and the habitats they live in.
*Much of the background information in this blog comes from the book: Hunter, Luke. Wild Cats of the World. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015.
Learn more about Panthera’s Small Cats Program.