Big cats tend to get the lion’s share of the limelight. But across almost every habitat on Earth prowl their lesser-known, often elusive, smaller cousins.
From the intrepid desert-dwelling sand cat to Asia’s water-loving fishing cat, here are seven extraordinary feline species you might not know existed.
1. Sand cat
The mysterious sand cat (Felis margarita) roams the deserts of northern Africa, southwest and central Asia. The hardy animal has adapted to withstand brutal conditions: it can endure temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius in summer and -25 degrees Celsius in winter; and, incredibly, it does not need to drink water to survive, instead getting the moisture it needs from its prey.
Sleek-bodied, reddish-gold hued, with distinctive long, black ear tufts, caracals (caracal caracal) are perhaps the most striking as well as the fastest of the small cats. Most impressive of all though is their astonishing ability to leap 10 metres (33ft) into the air to snatch birds, mid-flight.
3. Fishing cat
It is said cats hate water, but the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus) defies that trope. These felines, found near rivers and wetlands in Asia, are brilliant swimmers and fishers. They are well adapted to a life around water with their part-webbed paws and two layers of fur; one short and dense which acts like a wetsuit and the other formed of outer, longer hairs. These cunning cats have also perfected the trick of detecting fish in the water with their whiskers, before making a direct strike.
With their exquisitely-patterned coats and slim, house-cat like faces ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are among the most beautiful of the cats. They are found as far north as Arizona and Texas in the US down through Central and South America. The adaptive ocelot is not picky about what it eats, feasting on iguanas, frogs, crabs and monkeys as well as other small mammals and birds.
The jaguarundi’s (Puma yagouaroundi) long body, short legs and flattened head give it an odd, weasel-like look. They are also unusual because of their diverse coat colour – black, brown, grey, or red – and vocal range; they communicate by screaming, yapping, chirping, whistling, purring and “chattering”. Like ocelots, jaguarundis are found in the Americas, from Argentina to southern US, and there is even believed to be a feral population in Florida, descended from pets that escaped in the 1940s.
The little kodkod (Leopardus guingna), also known as the Guiña, is found only in Central and Southern Chile, with a handful of populations in Argentina. Preferring to dwell near forest, the savvy cats are only nocturnal if humans are nearby, though they actually prefer to hunt both day and night when undisturbed. The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists them as “vulnerable”, mainly due to logging and habitat loss.
7. Rusty-spotted cat
These compact cats are so dinky they could sit in the palm of your hand. The rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) competes for the title of world’s smallest feline along with the black-footed cat and the kodkod; they are about half the size of a domestic cat, with adults measuring around 13-18 inches (33-46cm) from the head to the base of the tail. Found only in India and Sri Lanka, rusty-spotted cats are sometimes described as the hummingbird of felines because of their size, agility, and beauty.