The Rusty Spotted Cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) is fondly known as the humming bird of the cat world. Rusties are considers to be the smallest wildcat in the world and are only found in Sri Lanka and parts of India. First identified in 1831 by Geffory Saint Hilaire, they are seldom seen in the wild, due to their small size and potential nocturnal behavior. Despite the small size Rusties are known to be highly aggressive and agile, and will not back out of a fight with something many times its size.
Rusty Spotted Cat populations in India have been restricted to the southern parts, there have been reports of cats being spotted in northern parts of the country as well. In Sri Lanka reports suggest that the cats occupy the entire island though seldom seen in the wild. They have been known to occupy various habitats throughout the island including, human modified agriculture land such as paddy fields and sugar cane fields.
According to Deraniyagala (1956), two distinct populations of Rusty-Spotted Cats exist in Sri Lanka; one in the dry zone and the other in the wet zone. The wet zone population has been described as a subspecies Prionailurus rubiginosus koladivius by Deraniyagala (1956), while Pocock (1939) described the population in Sri Lanka as the subspecies Prionailurus rubiginosus phillipsi (Pocock, 1939).
The Rusty Spotted Cat Project (Insearch of Tiny Kitty)
As with all other species of wildcat, Rusties too are suffering from human activity which is leading to habitat loss. Also with Rusty Spotted Cats, there is hardly any research done specific to the species other than records and findings done while focusing on other animals especially the Sri Lankan Leopard. So after meeting Dr. Jim Sanderson, one of the leading small cat researchers in the world I decided that it is high time that someone took up the challenge of studying Rusties. It has been a challenge in deed as finding these little fellows has been near impossible in the wild. To initiate the project and build a foundation on the behavior of the small cats, I decided that it would be best to start off with the National Zoological Gardens in Dehiwala. Here using Remote camera traps placed in enclosure as well as direct observations the project was able to get a good understanding of the basic behavior of the cats.
As these cats are captive and follow a feeding schedule they will show variations in behavior from what we would encounter in the wild. But the findings were somewhat astonishing, as we had two cats that only came out in the dead on night even though they were fed at 2pm in the afternoon, when the others were. The cats are highly agile as they can scamper up the cage wall without any difficulty at all. They are pocket size but are not ones to back out of their area even for a person about 10 times their size stacking up cameras in their homes. I have been hissed at, swatted and even peed on by some of the cats and the camera usually end being soaked in urine after being scent marked, showing that these cats are highly territorial in nature.
In the Wild 10 remote camera Traps are running in various locations to try and catch a glimpse of these rare and elusive cats. Also work is being conducted together with locals in these areas, where they are educated and taught how to identify a rusty properly. The villagers also have interesting tails to tell about the Rusties they have encountered. Once they have positively identified a Rusty out a lot of pictures showing many of the small mammals they encounter such as civets and the other two small cats that are in the country, the Fishing cat and the Jungle cat. The villagers are asked to speak about what they know about the Rusty Spotted Cat. Out the villagers I have spoken to 90% of them say the same story of how a Rusty ate either their domestic cat or a cat of someone they know. It would be surprising to actually see this happen as Rusties are considerably smaller than a domestic cat.
The research is still on going and there is so much more that we can learn about this pocket sized feline, and hopefully in time to come we can uncover all the minute little secrets that Tiny Kitty has in store for us.