International Society For Endangered Cats

A Voice For The Wild Cats of the World

It’s World Water (Cat) Day

Today is International World Water Day. It is held annually on 22 March as a means of focusing attention on the importance of freshwater and advocating for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.

So what does this have to do with wild cats?

Wetlands are the transition zone between land and water. Wetlands provide food, habitat and shelter for local wildlife, migratory birds and aquatic species. Wetlands also provide the most productive habitat for rodents, where they have water, abundant vegetation for cover and food. And where there are high numbers of rodents, there are small wild cats.

The inappropriately named Jungle Cat is not associated with jungles but with wetlands containing water and dense vegetation for cover, especially reed swamps and marsh. Their more common names are Swamp Cat or Reed Cat. They are sometimes associated with man-made fish ponds, reservoirs and sprinkler-irrigated landscapes. Reclamation and destruction of natural wetlands pose a more serious threat to this species.

Even wild cats from the grasslands are dependent on water sources. Wetland conservation is the key to Serval conservation. As these areas harbour high rodent densities, they form the core area of Serval home ranges. Their distribution is closely tied to water and the associated vegetation, reed beds and marshes.

Forest cats too, rely on the existence of rivers and streams. A study in Belize found higher concentrations of Ocelots in connected wildlife corridors along rivers. In habitat that has been fragmented by development, these small cats use riparian corridors for hunting, range expansion and to find mates. Natural habitat along rivers is vital to the survival of many wildlife species.

A couple of the wild cats go even farther. They hunt in the water, swim, dive and play in it.

The first cat that comes to mind is the aptly named Fishing Cat. These cats are strongly associated with wetland, and are found in a number of water habitats, including marshy thickets, mangrove swamps, and densely vegetated areas along rivers and streams. They have also been observed in degraded habitat near aquaculture ponds.

Fishing Cats are strong swimmers, and can cover long distances underwater. They have been seen wading and swimming in shallow water, hunting for a variety of aquatic prey.  They often hunt for fish while fully immersed in water, and have been seen catching fish by plunging their heads under water, and flicking or scooping them out with their paws. One report describes them catching waterfowl by swimming underwater and seizing their legs from beneath.

Another water-dependent feline is the little-known Flat-headed Cat.

Filling the role of a semi-aquatic carnivore, their 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. Their toes are more completely webbed than those of the Fishing Cat, and they have long, narrow footpads.

In 2005, a group of primate researchers on Borneo accidently 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 a month. 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. 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. Water pollution in the form of agricultural run-off and logging activities pose a serious threat to both of these cats through contamination of their prey. In addition, waterways are often the areas first cleared as settlement expands.

It is a myth that cats don’t like water. Many of them depend on it for their very survival.

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