Although most attention and conservation funding are dedicated to big cats, there are 33 equally fascinating and striking species of small wild cats. Many are a mere fraction of the size of the largest male tigers, which can weigh over 600 pounds and take down prey as large as wild buffalo and even bears. Although some “small cats” can be quite large (Eurasian lynx have been documented to occasionally be larger than snow leopards), the four smallest species can all weigh only 2 kg at adulthood. Despite their small size, there is much to learn and love about these species. While these cats may seem cute, it’s important to note that they are wild, increasingly threatened animals that should never be captured or traded for commercial purposes. Let’s learn to protect them — read on to find out about the guiña, black-footed cat, flat-headed cat and rusty-spotted cat.
The guiña, also known as the kodkod, is the only cat from the Americas on our list. This cat native to much of Chile (especially its temperate forests) and parts of Argentina weighs in at only 2-3 kg (4-6 lbs). While the guiña may look like Geoffroy’s cat, which it shares much of its range with, it has distinct, relatively short legs and a coat covered with greyish-brown fur. Like many other small cats, the guiña preys on small rodents, birds, reptiles and insects.
And like many small cat species, guiñas face serious threats. Listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, guiñas face the threat of habitat fragmentation from road construction, separating populations of the species. Additionally, like the other cat species of this region, guiñas are often seen as a nuisance for ranchers who want to protect their livestock. As a result, guiñas face persecution.
The most endangered small cat on this list is the flat-headed cat, a species for which we just made an important discovery. Panthera partners recently recorded an adult flat-headed cat weighing only 1 kg, making it one of the smallest small cats in the world. Generally, this cat weighs only 2-3 kg (4-6 lbs), tying the guiña for the title of third smallest. Inhabiting the wetlands and tropical rainforests of peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo (and possibly the Thailand-Malaysia border), these cats possess a short, tubular body, large eyes, oversized teeth and webbed feet to feast on fish and small reptiles.
Flat-headed cats are notorious for being very elusive and rare. Very few camera trap images of them exist — far less than for other Southeast Asian wild cat species. This makes it difficult for scientists to study the species, which is listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List. That’s why Panthera became involved in their conservation. Flat-headed cats face the dire threats of habitat fragmentation for agriculture, the illegal pet trade, water pollution and fishery depletion. To assess how conservationists can help, Panthera conducts camera trap surveys in Malaysian Borneo to better understand the species’ numbers and ecology. Additionally, we train local communities to conduct patrols and survey wildlife, which builds local capacity to protect this species, as well as other threatened Bornean wild cats, including the Sunda clouded leopard and bay cat.
Think lions or tigers are the deadliest cats on the planet? Think again! Black-footed cats are actually the most triumphant feline hunters in the world, with the highest rate of hunting success of any wild cat species — 60 percent! The species’ short stature allows it to creep up on prey in short grass and karoo vegetation types, giving it a competitive edge over larger carnivore species such as African wildcats, cape foxes and caracals.
But how does a cat so small do it? Like guiñas, black-footed cats ambush small birds, rodents and reptiles. Weighing in at only 1-2 kg (2-4 lbs), this species is well-adapted to hunt in its southern African habitat, including large swaths of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. While this spotted species faces threats of poisoning and habitat destruction, the species is not yet Endangered; it is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
On average, the smallest cat species in the world is the rusty-spotted cat. They weigh only 1-2 kg (2-4 lbs). Found across much of the Indian subcontinent in a variety of habitats, rusty-spotted cats, like guiñas and black-footed cats, often prey on small rodents and birds. While little is known about this particularly small felid, it is known to range over a variety of habitats. Due to habitat destruction and falling prey to domestic dogs, rusty-spotted cats are classified by the IUCN as Near Threatened.
Want to learn more about small cats? Check out our Small Cat Spotlight collection and don’t forget to visit our newly updated Small Cat Program page. News and information about bobcats, clouded leopards, ocelots and more await!