- HB Length: 45-52 cm (18-20″)
- Tail Length: 12-17 cm (4.7-7″)
- Height: 33-50 cm (13-20″)
- Weight: 1.5-2.5 kg (3.3-5.5 lbs)
- Pop. Trend: Decreasing
Flat-headed Cats Prionailurus planiceps are the most unusual members of the cat family, with their long, narrow head and flattened forehead. In appearance, they bear a strong resemblance to the civets, which are not cats, but members of the Viverridae family.
About the size of a domestic cat, they have an elongated body, short legs with small, rounded paws, and a short tail. The coat is thick, soft and long, reddish brown on top of the head and dark brown on the body, with a fine speckling of grey and buff on the tips. The muzzle, chin and cheeks are white, with short, white stripes at the inner edge and along the lower margins of eyes, and two dark streaks on each cheek. A yellow line runs up from each eye to near the ear. Underparts are also white, and generally more or less spotted and splashed with brown. Large, brown eyes are set closely together, and short, rounded ears are set well down the sides of the head. The legs are short and can have some indistinct horizontal markings. The short tail is thickly furred, reddish brown above and yellowish underneath.
Flat-headed Cats share one characteristic with the Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, and Fishing Cat Prionailurus viverrinus, in that their claws are not fully retractile, and can be seen at all times. Their toes are more completely webbed than those of the Fishing Cat, and they have long, narrow footpads.
Filling the role of a semi-aquatic carnivore, the long, narrow jaws and pointed, backward facing teeth are adaptations to catching and holding slippery prey such as fish and frogs.These cats may well be more deserving of the name ‘fishing cat’ than the species that already has that name.
Conclusive information on the distribution of Flat-headed cats is largely missing due to lack of data. They are thought to frequent riverine habitats in lowland jungles and deep forest.
Flat-headed Cats are, to a greater degree, more closely associated with wetlands than the Fishing Cat but they have a much smaller distribution, and are now found only on the islands of Borneo, Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia.
Once declared extinct in Malaysia, a small number were found in 1985, living in palm oil plantations, preying on the numerous rats to be found there. In 2013, the second-ever photographic evidence of Flat-headed Cats in Peninsular Malaysia was captured by camera traps in the Pasoh Forest Reserve. Two cats were seen moving together during daylight hours in lowland forest far from water, and 1.5 km from a palm oil plantation.
Most collection records are from swampy areas, lakes or riverine forest. They also occur in peat forest and have been observed in recently logged forest, oil palm and rubber plantations, suggesting some tolerance of human-altered landscapes.
In 1995, two Flat-headed Cats were observed by zoologists along the Merang River on Sumatra. These sightings were the first confirmed record for Berbak National Park, and park officers had never observed or heard of the species. In 1996, the first ever photo of a Flat-headed Cat in the wild was taken by camera trap on the island of Sumatra.
Little is known about their natural history, although they are thought to be nocturnal. With the increase of scientific studies of various animals on Borneo, the number of sightings has increased. Almost all sightings have been along rivers, streams, small ponds or water-filled ditches. One cat was observed in an area that had been selectively logged in 2004. Coming across the cat at night, its reflected eyeshine was picked up by the flashlights of the researchers. When it was first spotted, the cat froze in position, then unhurriedly turned and walked back into thick undergrowth.
In 2005, a group of primate researchers on Borneo accidentally trapped a Flat-headed cat. It was released in a forested area about 10 metres away from a riverbank. When the cage door was opened, the cat walked to the riverbank, slid into the water and dived. It reappeared and swam about 25 metres to the other side of the river before walking along the bank and out of sight. It is interesting to note the cat headed to the water for safety, instead of the shelter of the trees.
In Kuala Lumpur, a kitten was kept in captivity for nearly a month before it died. When provided with a basin of water, the kitten immediately entered and played in it, sometimes for hours. He played with various objects placed in the water, and seized pieces of fish with his mouth from a depth of 12 cm, fully submerging his head. He often washed objects in the water. When his cage was washed with a hose, he would play in the stream of water. He captured live frogs placed in his cage, but completely ignored sparrows. When food was offered he pounced on it, snarled and always carried it at least 4.5 metres away from where it was offered. This would suggest that in nature, their slippery prey, once caught, would not be able to re-enter the water.
The scant information available on the Flat-headed Cat’s reproductive habits includes a young kitten that was found in the wild in the month of January. It had much the same colouration as the adults except that it was somewhat greyer. It developed adult colouration at one year of age. Gestation is approximately 56 days, with one to four kittens born. Captive animals have lived to 14 years.
The 2013 camera trap records in Malalysia were obtained by the Tropical Ecology Assessment & Monitoring Network (TEAM), who monitor long term trends in tropical biodiversity. The photos were obtained after the camera had been moved by monkeys, which reduced its height from 40 cm to about 10 cm above the forest floor. Due to the cat’s small size, they likely move through undergrowth and on small trails, while most camera trap projects are set on more open, larger animal trails. Current camera traps are also likely set too high for the detection of these cats.
Flat-headed Cats inhabit mainly lower-altitude gentle terrain, which are facing high levels of clearance. Water pollution in the form of agricultural run-off and logging activities also pose a serious threat to these cats through contamination of their prey. In addition, waterways are often the areas first destroyed as settlement expands. They have also been reported to take domestic poultry which means persecution by farmers.
Researchers with The Bornean Clouded Leopard Program studying the five wild cats of Borneo have recorded Flat-headed Cats on camera trap surveys, identifying areas where they occur on the island.
The World Conservation Union has given the Flat-headed Cat the highest conservation priority of any of the small South East Asian wild cats. The possibility exists that they will disappear before we have a chance to ensure their survival.
Compare these unusual cats to the Fishing Cat who shares much of their range.
Range map IUCN Red List (2008)