The rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) is the smallest cat species in the world. The species is native to the Indian subcontinent, with populations also found in Sri Lanka. Despite its petite stature, typically weighing between 0.8 to 1.6 kilograms (1.8 to 3.5 lb), this captivating cat embodies the fierce independence and agile adaptability synonymous with larger felids. Marked with a soft, grayish coat dotted with rusty spots, the rusty-spotted cat is a testament to the vast diversity of the wild cat family.
The rusty-spotted cat is extremely small compared to most felids, with adults typically weighing between 0.8 to 1.6 kilograms (1.8 to 3.5 lb). Its coat is short and soft, grayish in color, and marked with rusty spots over its body and stripes on its head. The cat has large eyes, which are beneficial for its primarily nocturnal lifestyle.
Its body length ranges from 35 to 48 cm (14 to 19 inches), complemented by a tail measuring between 15 to 30 cm (5.9 to 11.8 inches).
Habitat and behavior
These cats are highly adaptable and are found in a wide range of habitats, including grasslands, forests, and even scrublands. Despite their small size, rusty-spotted cats are adept climbers and often reside in trees. They are solitary animals, with males and females coming together primarily for mating purposes.
Like all felines, the rusty-spotted cat is a hypercarnivore, feeding on a variety of small prey including rodents, birds, lizards, and insects.
A hypercarnivore is an animal that has a diet consisting of more than 70% meat. These species are often apex predators in their respective ecosystems, equipped with adaptations such as sharp teeth and claws for catching and consuming prey. Examples include lions, tigers, wolves, and eagles.
Their gestation period lasts about 65-70 days, and the female usually gives birth to 1 to 2 kittens. The kittens become independent at around four months of age, and they reach sexual maturity at around 68 weeks.
The rusty-spotted cat’s distribution is fairly specific, primarily found in areas of dry and moist deciduous forests, scrubland, and grassland. It’s less likely to inhabit evergreen forests and is known to favor rocky areas with dense vegetation.
In India, this elusive feline was once considered to be exclusive to the southern regions, but recent data indicate its presence across much of the country. Locations include Gujarat’s Gir National Park, Maharashtra’s Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, and the Eastern Ghats. The cat’s existence has been confirmed via camera trapping in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve and Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra.
Particularly in western Maharashtra, the world’s smallest cat thrives and breeds in agricultural landscapes dominated by human activity, thanks to high rodent densities. In 2014 and 2015, the rusty-spotted cat was spotted in Kalesar National Park, Haryana, and later in Uttar Pradesh’s Mirzapur Forest Division in 2018.
In Nepal, a rusty-spotted cat was photographed for the first time in Bardia National Park in 2012, and later in Shuklaphanta National Park in 2016.
In Sri Lanka, sightings are rare, but there have been a few records in both montane and lowland rainforests. There are two identified populations: one in the dry zone and another in the wet zone. It was seen for the first time in Horton Plains National Park in 2016 at elevations between 2,084 and 2,162 meters (6,837-7,093 feet).
The rusty-spotted cat is listed as “Near Threatened” on the IUCN Red List. The main threats to the species are habitat loss due to agricultural expansion and the increasing human population. The species is protected by national legislation in India and Sri Lanka.
Though they’re small and relatively lesser-known compared to larger wild cats like tigers or lions, rusty-spotted cats are unique and fascinating creatures that play a vital role in their ecosystem.
Another contender for the title of the world’s smallest cat is the black-footed cat (Felis nigripes) of southern Africa. This species is slightly heavier, with adults usually weighing between 1.0 to 2.1 kilograms (2.2 to 4.6 lb).
The body and head length of female black-footed cat cats typically spans 33.7 to 36.8 cm (13.3 to 14.5 inches), with their tails adding an additional 15.7 to 17 cm (6.2 to 6.7 inches). Male counterparts, on the other hand, measure between 42.5 and 50 cm (16.7 and 19.7 inches) in body and head length, accompanied by tails stretching 15 to 20 cm (5.9 to 7.9 inches) long.