Marbled cat

I’ll make no bones about it: I’m fascinated by small cats. And so I’ll follow the leopard cat post with another housecat-sized feline. What is it about the small cats that draws my attention? For one reason they seem to be often overlooked. Mention the word tiger or leopard to someone and a vivid image immediately leaps to mind: black stripes on a blazing orange background or rosettes spotted across an amber coat. But ask the same person about the margay or kodkod or flat-headed cat and they would probably draw a blank. And with good reason: the tiger’s smaller cousins get far less publicity. They also receive far less conservation research and funding. This is a shame, in my opinion, because these are fascinating species. And they need work. I’ll put in a disclaimer here: Many big cats are in trouble and deserve to be the focus of conservation efforts—the tiger, especially, is in bad shape. But this shouldn’t be done at the expense of the smaller cats. In some ways I feel like they’ve slipped through the conservation cracks.

The Annamite Mountains have several small cats roaming their forests. We’ve covered two in Species Spotlight so far. Now we turn to the marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata): one of the most mysterious and elusive small cats in the world. For my money it’s also one of the most striking. The marbled cat is similar in size to a domestic tabby. But all similarities end there. It has a brownish background coat covered in dark spots and irregular nebulous cloud-like shapes. The unique pattern helps break up its outline as it stalks the shadowy jungle for birds and mice. The tail is unusually long—an adaptation that allows it to maintain its balance while climbing through the trees. In fact, the marbled cat is one of the most arboreal cats in the world. It is believed to spend much of its time in the canopy searching for prey. It is found almost exclusively in moist and mixed evergreen deciduous forest. It has a wide, though patchy, distribution, living from Nepal to Indochina and south into Indonesia.

The marbled cat is found throughout the Annamites. However, records are few and far between, and much of what we know about its distribution in this area comes from eyewitness reports or evidence in rural markets. I’m not aware of any camera trap photo of this species from Vietnam—though a handful might exist somewhere. Why is this species so difficult to study? There are a couple reasons. One relates to its highly arboreal nature: it is far less likely to have its picture snapped by a camera trap if it spends most of its time in the treetops. Add to this the fact that solitary small cats in general tend to be very secretive—and you have a feline phantom. This lack of information is problematic given the uncertain future that this small cat faces. The IUCN lists the species as Vulnerable. Despite its relatively large geographic distribution, the habitat the marbled cat needs is far more specific than, say, its cousin the leopard cat. And the evergreen tropical forests that it requires are undergoing some of the fastest deforestation rates in the world—especially in Southeast Asia. Despite few records it is likely that healthy marbled cat populations persist in several parts of the Annamite Mountains. But for how long will they be here? And given our inability to monitor populations in this ecoregion will we even know if they disappear?

Marbled cat camera trap photo
Marbled cat camera trap photo

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