- Scientific name: Prionailurus viverrinus
- English Name: Fishing Cat
- Sinhala Name: හඳුන් දිවියා / Handun Diviya
- Tamil Name: மீன்பிடிப் பூனை / Meenpitip Pūnei OR கொடுப்புலி / Kōduppuli
- Average adult weight: 8-16kg
- Size comparison: About the size of an adult cocker spaniel
Image by: Scott Kayser
The fishing cat is a stocky and powerfully built animal. Its short, coarse fur coat is a beautiful olive grey, tinged with brown and patterned with rows of parallel solid black, oblong spots along its flank. The cat can also be recognised by the four dark lines running along the length of its forehead and along its back, which eventually taper into spots.
The cat’s head is large, with a broad forehead, an elongated muzzle and two stripes that run from its yellowish green eyes, down along the side of its face. Its ears are small and round, and the backs of each ear is black with a prominent white spot in the middle – very much like a tigers. Its deep-chested body supports short muscular legs, with the forelegs having two distinct elbow bars, and a white underbelly with black spots and stripes. Unlike most other species, a fishing cat’s tail is less than half its body length, and is thick, with a series of incomplete rings and a solid black tip.
Ever heard of the saying cats hate water? Well, unlike most feline species, a fishing cat is well adapted for a semi-aquatic lifestyle.
Image by: Neville Buck
This is because of one incredible feature they have – the layered structure of their fur, which is an important adaptation to a life in and around water. Right above its skin lies a thick, dense layer of short hair that prevents water from penetrating through to its skin. Like polar bears, this layer of hair acts as snug-fitting thermal underwear, and keeps the animal both warm and dry even during the coldest of fishing expeditions. Sprouting through this dense coat is yet another layer of long guard hairs which gives the cat its gorgeous glossy pattern, and sheen.
Despite this cat’s well deserved reputation of being a master angler, it shows very little morphological adaptations for capturing or eating fish. Firstly, similar to the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) the fishing cat’s claw sheaths are short, making its claws semi-retractable. Secondly, unlike the long and sharp second upper pre-molar of a flat-headed cat, which allows it to grab and hold onto slippery prey, the fishing cat’s tooth is much smaller and less developed. Finally, one of the most noted characteristics associated with a fishing cat is its webbed feet. But, although it was thought that the fishing cat’s webbed feet were unique, it has now been found that this webbing is not much more developed than that of a Bobcat.
Behaviour and Reproduction
There is little data on the social organisation or mating behaviour of this species in the wild. However, in captivity, the females are assumed to be polyeastrous (able to go into heat several times a year). Fishing cat dens are constructed in thick shrub, reeds, rocky crevices and tree hollows. Two kittens are usually born after a 63-70 day gestation period and weigh around 170 grams each. Kittens open their eyes by day 16 and in captivity, meat is introduced into their diet around day 53. The kittens are weaned when they are between 4-6 months old and become independent at 12-18 months. In captivity, fishing cats have been known to live up to 12 years of age. Their lifespan in the wild has not been identified as yet due to lack of research, but is work in progress.
Fishing cats are solitary animals, and seem to follow the typical felid occupancy pattern, in which several females’ home ranges are overlapped by one male. Currently, no studies have been done on scent marking patterns and vocal communication between individuals. However it has been observed that both sexes scent-mark by head and cheek rubbing, and spraying urine. Males and females have been heard making chucking calls and gurgling noises, whereas kittens mew and have birdlike chirrups.
The natural global distribution of the species is unclear due to many unauthenticated records throughout its range. Though the species is widely distributed in South and Southeast Asia, its patchy distribution throughout most of its range is most likely due to the species’ strong association with wetland habitats, which are few and far between in the region.
Fishing cats have been recorded in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
HABITAT AND ECOLOGY
Throughout their range, fishing cats are strongly associated with wetlands, marshlands and other habitats that have a good source of flowing water. Most known records of the species within its range are from lowlands. However, in Sri Lanka, fishing cats occur in wetlands in hilly areas as well.
The species is primarily nocturnal, and is a dietary generalist, consuming anything from rodents, to birds and fish. In India’s Howrah district of West Bengal, two species of rodents seem to be a favourite for fishing cats – Rattus rattus and Bandicota bengalensis – both of which are found in abundance in the rapidly urbanised zone. A dietary study conducted in the area suggests that an individual fishing cat eats between 365 and 730 rodents per year.
Image by: Sanjaya Adikari
A radio-telemetry study of four fishing cats in Chitwan National Park in Nepal in 2002, showed that the estimated home ranges of three females was 4-6 km², while a single male had an estimated home range of 16-22 km².
THREATS TO THE Population
ILLEGAL HUNTING AND TRADE
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Image by: Dinal Samarasinghe