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One of the world’s least known cats, the Flat-headed cat, is endangered by habitat loss

22/03/2010 15:08:15

The tiny flat-headed cat has webbed feet, believed to be a unique adaptation to enable it to hunt fish and crabs within wetland habitats. Photo: Andreas Wilting

The Flat-headed Cat: another victim of rain forest loss

March 2010. Almost 70 percent of the area which historically provided good habitats for the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) is already converted into plantations, creating a landscape in which the cats are unable to live. Even more alarming is the fact that the remaining habitats are highly fragmented and only a very small fraction (16 percent) is fully protected according to the criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This is because most large national parks in South-East Asia are located at higher elevations, areas in which the flat-headed cat, with its restriction to lowland and coastal swampy forests, rarely occurs.

Web-footed cat
The tiny flat-headed cat (1.5 to 2 kg) has webbed feet, believed to be a unique adaptation to enable it to hunt fish and crabs within wetland habitats such as lowland river banks and flooded peat forests. This wild cat is one of the world's least known cat species with a very restricted distribution and is now only found in a handful of tropical rainforests within Peninsular Thailand, Malaysia (both East and West), Brunei, and Indonesia (Kalimantan and Sumatra).

Flat-headed cat distribution
"We gathered all available scattered information on this cat which showed us that it mainly occurs in lowland or peat-swamp forests close to freshwater sources. With this information we developed a computer model to predict its historical and current distribution. The next step is to gain further information about the ecology of this little known species and to enforce the protection and thus ensure the sustainability of the key remaining forest habitats. For this purpose we identified 19 key localities throughout the distribution range highlighted by our model as important for the long-term survival of this rare species", says Andreas Wilting from the Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, Germany.

Tropical South-East Asia has both one of the highest diversities of species and one of the highest deforestation rates worldwide. Protecting habitats is fundamental to save biodiversity.

Otter civet & Hairy-nosed otter
Wilting and his collaborators hope that the charismatic flat-headed cat can serve as a flagship species for the conservation of the highly threatened lowland and wetland forests and that this species might become a symbol for restoration and rehabilitation efforts of riverine forests. The flat-headed cat represents a guild of lowland freshwater-dependent species such as the endangered otter civet or the endangered hairy-nosed otter. All these species depend on local and international conservation efforts. Joint efforts by governmental organisations, local stakeholders and NGOs are now needed to protect the flat-headed cat and the diversity of South-East Asian smaller carnivores.

These results are published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) ONE by an international team of scientists under the guidance of the Leibniz Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, Germany.

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