International Society For Endangered Cats

A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World

The Flat-headed Diving Cat

One of the least-known small wild cats is the flat-headed cat Prionialurus planiceps, found only in Sumatra, Borneo, Malaysia and extreme southern Thailand.

flat-headed cat

Photo by Zainal Zahari, WildAsia

They are rather unique in the cat world, having backward facing teeth for holding slippery prey, non-retractile claws and webbing between their toes. Very little is known about this species, with only a handful of observations and camera trap records.

During field surveys for primates, birds and bats between 2004 and 2006, direct sightings of the flat-headed cat were recorded. Three individual flat-headed cats were observed along the banks of the river in the evening, around 9 pm. These animals were about six to seven metres from the research team, who were travelling by boat downriver for a bat and bird survey. There are also reports of flat-headed cats being caught in rattan fishing traps, or traps set for civets.

A flat-headed cat was released in Maludam National Park, Sarawak, after it was accidentally caught in a trap, and its swimming behaviour was photographed.

Maludam National Park is one of the largest stretches of protected peat swamps left, and comprises a patchwork of forests with different levels of disturbance. Some patches have been heavily logged, and only a few large trees remain. Only the forests within about 500 m of the river are more intact. The forest is waterlogged, and the Maludam River is a narrow, black, and slightly acidic river. Its level varies with the rainfall, and there are many submerged branches in the water.

As the trapped cat appeared very aggressive and hissed whenever approached, it was transported with its cage inside a cloth sack to a release site near a Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia base camp. The cat was released in a forested area about 10 m from the bank of the Maludam River. At the time of release, the width of the river was probably about 20-30 metres. No measurements of the cat were taken, as the research team had no weighing equipment, gloves or anesthesia.

The animal was released during the daytime, so that the flight behaviour could be recorded. After release, the cat walked to the river bank, slid into the water, and dived for a few metres. It reappeared and swam to the other side of the river before walking along the river bank.

It’s worth noting that when it was released from the trap, the cats first instinct was to head for the water, not the cover of the surrounding forest. While the South American jaguar is well known for hunting in the water, the little flat-headed cat seems to take aquatic life to a new level, swimming and even diving in it.

Source: IUCN/SSC Cat News 52: Spring 2010

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