Mysterious, at risk, understudied flat-headed cat lacks conservation focus


Unceremoniously named for its distinctively shaped skull, the flat-headed cat is up for consideration as one of the world’s most endangered and elusive felines. Weighing in at less than the size of a domestic cat, this diminutive species roams semiaquatic and wetland habitat in Sumatra, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula and southern Thailand.

To navigate their muddy wet habitat, these cats are equipped with claws that don’t fully retract; partially webbed paws; wide, close-set eyes suited to a nocturnal lifestyle; and short, stubby tails. On their menu is a wide array of fish, amphibians, rodents and crustaceans.

Like many felids, flat-headed cats (Prionailurus planiceps) are at risk of extinction and are categorized as endangered on the IUCN Red List, as swaths of their habitat are lost to agricultural crops including oil palm. A 2015 study assessed the flat-headed cat as a feline of highest conservation priority, alongside the tiger (Panthera tigris), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), leopard (Panthera pardus) and puma (Puma concolor). An earlier study indicated that only around 10-20% of the species’ suitable habitat falls within protected areas, while as much as 70% of its habitat has possibly become unsuitable.

Compounding these threats is the fact that, like with so many other wild felids, the flat-headed cat is devilishly difficult to study, resulting in large knowledge gaps about its basic ecology, population numbers and precise distribution. As recently as 2019, only around 40 camera trap records existed, and it’s not even clear if the species still persists in southern Thailand, the northernmost extent of its range.

“It’s arguably one of the world’s rarest felids,” says Wai-Ming Wong, director of small cat conservation science at the wildcat NGO Panthera. “A lot of its habitat is unfortunately getting destroyed and really not much is known about it.”

Oil palm plantations on the edge of Tangkulap Forest Reserve in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Habitat loss and disturbance is one of the primary threats facing the elusive flat-headed cat. Others include hunting, pollution, and possibly the spread of disease from domestic animals. This small cat, specialized for wetland habitats, is considered endangered on the IUCN Red List. Image courtesy of Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera.
Oil palm plantations on the edge of Tangkulap Forest Reserve in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Habitat loss and disturbance is one of the primary threats facing the elusive flat-headed cat. Others include hunting, pollution, and possibly the spread of disease from domestic animals. This small cat, specialized for wetland habitats, is considered endangered on the IUCN Red List. Image courtesy of Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera.
A captive flat-headed cat at Batu Secret Zoo, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Save Wild Cats Foundation.
A captive flat-headed cat at Batu Secret Zoo, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Save Wild Cats Foundation.

Camera-shy specialists

The extreme challenge of studying P. planiceps is, at least in part, due to its particular evolutionary traits. Alongside Asia’s fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), the flat-headed cat is uniquely adapted to thrive in humid, semiaquatic tropical environments such as mangrove forests, lowland forests prone to flooding, peat swamps, and along impenetrably vegetated waterways — habitats all perfect for concealing this small felid, but not so conducive for researchers and their camera traps.

“When you work in a mangrove [swamp], I can tell you, it’s no joke,” says Carl Traeholt with Copenhagen Zoo, who has studied the flat-headed cat. There, scientists endure intense heat and humidity, along with biting insects, while navigating a tangled maze of arching stilt-like mangrove roots growing amid brackish water and treacherous mud. “It’s really difficult terrain to work in and very few people actually do that,” he says.

Consequently, this wetland-specialized species is one of the least-known small cats globally, with a paucity of records across its range. Camera-trap studies intended for more charismatic species may incidentally pick up a flat-headed cat or two in passing, but often the animals aren’t detected again at that spot. A study published in 2017 notes that camera traps across Borneo, Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia that observed for more than 100,000 nights yielded only 46 flat-headed cat detections — proving the common researcher refrain that the species is notoriously camera shy.

Yet some experts say the cat may not be as rare as presumed. Rather, the lack of detections may be due to the combined challenge of working in its habitat and a lack of studies tailored to target the species in its favorite environs. “When we use camera traps for months, we often do not pick up the species, but during a cruise on a boat you can spot it,” says Mohd Azlan Jayasilan, with the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation at the University of Malaysia Sarawak, on the island of Borneo.

Such an incident has occurred twice to Mohd Azlan and his team: once when they spotted a flat-headed cat resting on mangroves beside the Sarawak River, and once in Maludam National Park in Sarawak. “Because of the rarity in terms of information, I get excited every time I get a record of them in my camera traps,” he adds.

But this hard-to-study flat-headed cat habitat is fast disappearing, with some of Asia’s most endangered forest areas, including lowland tropical forest and peat swamp forest.

While habitat loss due to rapid agricultural encroachment is a primary threat, experts note other risks, such as hunting, capture as bycatch, pollution of waterways, road kills, and possibly the spread of disease from domestic animals. Some experts rank the endangered flat-headed cat’s extreme risk level alongside the elusive, and also endangered, Borneo bay cat (Catopuma badia).

Captive flat-headed cats at Songkhla Zoo in Thailand. It’s assumed the species still occurs in southern Thailand. Researchers in Thailand are studying the cat in captivity with a view to undertaking breed and release programs in future. Image courtesy of Patchara Danaisawadi.
Captive flat-headed cats at Songkhla Zoo in Thailand. It’s assumed the species still occurs in southern Thailand. Researchers in Thailand are studying the cat in captivity with a view to undertaking breed and release programs in future. Image courtesy of Patchara Danaisawadi.
A camera-trap sighting of a flat-headed cat near Lake Tungog, Malaysian Borneo. Tailoring camera traps to monitor flat-headed cats poses major logistical challenges. Some experts believe they may not be as rare as assumed, but rather studies have not accounted for their particular ecology. Image courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.
A camera-trap sighting of a flat-headed cat near Lake Tungog, Malaysian Borneo. Tailoring camera traps to monitor flat-headed cats poses major logistical challenges. Some experts believe they may not be as rare as assumed, but rather studies have not accounted for their particular ecology. Image courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.

Capturing a cat

In 2021, a rare feat occurred: researchers in Malaysia caught and radio-collared a female flat-headed cat. For nearly two months it sent back data on where it spent its days and nights.

“It was a very exciting, cool experience,” recalls Amanda Wilson, a Ph.D. student and research officer with the Danau Girang Field Centre, who was part of the team that tagged and tracked that cat. Data from this single individual showed that this small cat has a fittingly small-sized range.

Compared to the larger leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), for example, the flat-headed cat’s range appears to be far more restricted, says Wilson, who is studying both species for her Ph.D. Leopard cats can wander up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) within their home range and readily make use of oil palm plantations to hunt rodents and other prey. “But with the flat-headed cat, their range is much smaller; they only go up to 2 kilometers [1.2 mi],” Wilson says.

The radio-collared cat’s “core area,” where it spent most of its day, was even more constricted, covering just 500 square meters (about 5,400 square feet), Wilson adds. Based on this data, a picture — though a fuzzy, limited one — began to form. The tagged female didn’t stay exclusively in its wild riparian habitat, but seemed to have some adaptation to hunting in disturbed areas in forest that bordered an oil palm plantation, Wilson says.

But limited conclusions can be drawn from this one collared cat, and for Wilson that singular experience underscores the need for greater efforts to understand the species to protect it: “Every bit of data that we collect is, for me, priceless.”

Panthera’s Wong notes that the information retrieved from the collared cat could have important conservation implications. He suggests that, if a highly endangered species like the flat-headed cat finds strong conservation value within forest adjacent to oil palm plantations, then that could strengthen the case to preserve such areas, he says. But further data will be needed to build such a case.

On that front, Traeholt and his team are gearing up to capture and track flat-headed cats later this year. They have radio collars in hand and are identifying suitable sites; all they need now are the cats.

“I think we have a genuine probability of being able to capture some of them,” he says.

In a rare feat, researchers with the Danau Girang Field Centre in Malaysia were able to collar a female flat-headed cat, providing valuable information on this one individual’s movement patterns. They found that she roamed around the edges of oil palm plantations and occupied a small range compared to other cat species, such as the leopard cat. Image courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.
In a rare feat, researchers with the Danau Girang Field Centre in Malaysia were able to collar a female flat-headed cat, providing valuable information on this one individual’s movement patterns. They found that she roamed around the edges of oil palm plantations and occupied a small range compared to other cat species, such as the leopard cat. Image courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.
A flat-headed cat photographed at night in Sarawak’s Maludam National Park. Image courtesy of Anthony Pine.
A flat-headed cat photographed at night in Sarawak’s Maludam National Park. Image courtesy of Anthony Pine.

Beyond camera trapping

Camera traps have been the go-to method for studying P. planiceps. But this comes with numerous pitfalls. A large, targeted survey for flat-headed cats in Malaysia’s Deramakot landscape came up with just one record — a very worrying occurrence, according to Wong, as the region is considered a potential stronghold for the species.

However, shrinking the distances between cameras increased the numbers of sightings, adding weight to the idea that it requires a particular strategy to even catch a glimpse of this cat.

“We really need to understand how they move through the forest and how they use their habitats for us to get critical population information,” Wong says. “As it stands, it’s very difficult for us to do any meaningful analysis because we just have so few detections.”

Given these challenges, additional tools such as environmental DNA could prove useful. Experts say eDNA could be a “game-changer” for monitoring mammal species writ large, with that thinking already supported by studies of other felids such as Pallas’s cat (Otocolobus manul), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and jaguar (Panthera onca).

“By putting camera traps out there, we’re just kind of hoping that a flat-headed cat will cross [our] path,” says Wong. “Whereas if we can use genetic methods, we can be actively out there, taking swabs. That might be a method that we could potentially overlay with camera traps to help us increase detections.”

But eDNA is not without its own challenges, as sampling might only give an indication that a cat is in the vicinity, and not any information on densities, says Traeholt. “It can be very similar with camera trapping, in a way, as absence of record does not mean that they’re not there.” Still, he says this new tool has a lot of potential.

It could provide “another method to help us … detect a very rare species that’s hard to detect in difficult environments,” Wong says.

Researchers with the Danau Girang Field Centre set up camera traps. Ph.D. student Amanda Wilson says that targeting flat-headed cats requires laying out cameras much closer together. But the felid’s habitat poses a significant challenge; since starting with around 100 cameras in 2022, she only has around 30 cameras left due to the perils of flooding, humidity and playful elephants damaging the equipment. Image courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.
Researchers with the Danau Girang Field Centre set up camera traps. Ph.D. student Amanda Wilson says that targeting flat-headed cats requires laying out cameras much closer together. But the felid’s habitat poses a significant challenge; since starting with around 100 cameras in 2022, she only has around 30 cameras left due to the perils of flooding, humidity and playful elephants damaging the equipment. Image courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.

Saving the mystery cat

Researching the flat-headed cat certainly presents big challenges, but so too does developing effective conservation action plans for such a cryptic species.

“We want to address threats, we never want to … forget about those,” Wong says, but first, researchers must gain a deeper understanding of where exactly the cats live. Panthera plans to conduct a range-wide survey of the flat-headed cat, including a pilot survey in southern Thailand to determine its presence there.

Other organizations, such as the Save Wild Cats Foundation, are funding conservation and attempting to launch captive-breeding programs in partnership with zoos in range countries. Thus far, such efforts have proven futile. Songkla Zoo in Thailand is one such center; it plans to trial artificial insemination of captive flat-headed cats later this year.

“The flat-headed cat is about to become extinct if we do not help preserve it,” says Surasak Yimprasert, head of the conservation, research and animal health department at Songkhla Zoo. He says international collaboration is urgently needed to support breeding efforts and other action, such as awareness raising at the community level.

“If you want conservation in the wild to be effective, we must educate people who are close to the forest and prevent encroachment on … the habitat of the flat-headed cat,” says Yimprasert.

A barrier, however, is limited interest in the species, say experts. Small cats in general face a lack of conservation awareness, something that some researchers say is changing, as funding and knowledge of small felids increases little by little. As information about these cats grows, so too does understanding of their pivotal role in ecosystems and the larger web of life.

But compared to their big cat cousins, the small wild cats of the world still face large hurdles to their survival, against a backdrop of meager funding and limited research; the flat-headed cat is no exception.

Setting camera traps in Deramakot Forest Reserve, Malaysia. This area is a potential stronghold for the flat-headed cat, though targeted conservation efforts for the species are limited there. Image courtesy of Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera.
Setting camera traps in Deramakot Forest Reserve, Malaysia. This area is a potential stronghold for the flat-headed cat, though targeted conservation efforts for the species are limited there. Image courtesy of Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera.
A captive flat-headed cat. Attempts to breed this endangered species in captivity have thus far been largely unsuccessful. Image courtesy of Jim Sanderson.
A captive flat-headed cat. Attempts to breed this endangered species in captivity have thus far been largely unsuccessful. Image courtesy of Jim Sanderson.

Jim Sanderson, founder and director of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation, emphasizes the need to reduce threats by making preservation of the flat-headed cat’s habitat a top priority. Traeholt suggests applying a precautionary approach, acting now to protect areas where multiple records of the endangered cat exist.

Many questions remain about the flat-headed cat, but for experts at least one thing is certain: this felid is in urgent need of conservation before it slips quietly into oblivion. “We don’t want to wait until it’s reaching the end of the population before we start emphasizing the need for researching and protecting the flat-headed cat,” says Wilson.

Citations:

Wilting, A., Cord, A., Hearn, A. J., Hesse, D., Mohamed, A., Traeholdt, C., … Hofer, H. (2010). Modelling the species distribution of flat-headed cats (Prionailurus planiceps), an endangered South-East Asian small felid. PLOS ONE, 5(3), e9612. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009612

Dickman, A. J., Hinks, A. E., Macdonald, E. A., Burnham, D., & Macdonald, D. W. (2015). Priorities for global felid conservation. Conservation Biology, 29(3), 854-864. doi:10.1111/cobi.12494

Bohmann, K., Evans, A., Gilbert, M. T., Carvalho, G. R., Creer, S., Knapp, M., … De Bruyn, M. (2014). Environmental DNA for wildlife biology and biodiversity monitoring. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29(6), 358-367. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.04.003

Wadey, J., Ramli, M., Moore, J., Fletcher, C., & Campos-Arceiz, A. (2016) Flat-headed cats, Prionailurus planiceps — A literature review of their detection-rate in camera-trap studies and failure to re-detect them in Pasoh Forest Reserve, Malaysia. Journal of Indonesian Natural History, 4(2), 16-28. Retrieved from http://jinh.fmipa.unand.ac.id/index.php/jinh/article/view/118

Danaisawadi, P., Piriyarom, S., Krasaeden, W., Pramkasem, S., Rurkkhum, S., & Yimprasert, S. (2023). Time budget and activity patterns during the mating period of flat-headed cat Prionailurus planiceps in captivity. Tropical Natural History, 7, 221-228. Retrieved from https://li01.tci-thaijo.org/index.php/tnh/article/view/258833

This article by Sean Mowbray was first published by Mongabay.com on 29 May 2024. Lead Image: A flat-headed cat snapped at night on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. This small felid is considered one of the most endangered cats in Southeast Asia, but is rarely caught on camera and large knowledge gaps exist about its basic ecology, population numbers, and distribution. Image courtesy of Sebastian Kennerknecht/Panthera.

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