Every once in a while, scientists working in some remote corner of the globe catch sight of a creature so rare, so elusive and so amazing that you just need to sit up and say "whoa." This is one of those times.
The little-known and rarely studied bay cat (Pardofelis badia) of Borneo has only been observed a few times in the past 150 years. The first few scientific descriptions for the cat weren't even based on live animals. An 1874 examination of a skull and some skins produced the first of several taxonomic descriptions that were all later disqualified. The species was only formally identified in 1992, based on another sample, which revealed that the bay cat was a close relative of the mainland Asian golden cat (then known as Catopuma temminckii). Both species were placed into the Pardofelis genus in 2006; that genus contains just one other species, the marbled cat (P. marmorata), which also lives in the region.
But through all of this, live bay cat observations were still few and far between. The first living bay cat was not photographed until 1998, and a live cat was not captured until 2005. Then, in 2009, a camera trap collected seven whole seconds of footage of a wild bay cat in its native habitat.
Now we have the best photos yet of the elusive species: more than 80 images collected via camera traps by researchers from the Zoological Society of London and Imperial College London. The scientists were there as part of the S.A.F.E. Project (Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems), which examines how logging, deforestation, forest fragmentation and other ecosystem modifications affect the entire web of life in Borneo. The scientists were "completely surprised" to collect photographs of so many bay cats in the region, as its "natural forests have been so heavily logged for the timber trade," Robert Ewers of Imperial College London said in a press release.
In addition to the 84 photos of bay cats, the camera traps collected 267 images of Sunda clouded leopards (Neofelis diardi), 89 photos of marbled cats, and 84 shots of leopard cats (Prionailurus bengalensis). The scientists also spotted a single flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) crossing a logging road, but they didn't capture it on camera. "Conservationists used to assume that relatively few wild animals can live in logged forest," Ewers said, "but we now know this land can be home for many endangered species." The research was published November 4 in PLoS One.
The findings don't add much to what we know about the bay cat. The cats' size and weight were already known—they stand about 60 centimeters tall and weigh three to four kilograms, roughly the size of an average housecat. They have short, chestnut-colored fur, slightly elongated legs, small ears, and a long, tapering tail with a streak of white on the underside and a dash of black at the tip. The recent camera images all captured the cats on the ground, so the researchers suggest that the bay cat is probably not any more arboreal than other Bornean species. The photos also contained no evidence of breeding bay cats (something the cameras did record with the clouded leopard), nor do the pictures illuminate how the cat uses its habitat. The researchers did find that most of the photographed bay cats were observed away from logging regions; some of the other species were found in closer proximity to human disturbances. They hope to use some of the new observations to design recommendations that would make palm-oil plantations more mammal-friendly. (The study was funded by the philanthropic arm of Sime Darby, a major palm-oil producer, but the researchers say that the funders had no role in conducting the research or preparing the study for publication.)
The researchers note that the new study and other recent, unpublished camera trap findings reveal that bay cats live at higher elevations than previously thought, so the current estimates of a wild population of 2,500 mature individuals may be too low. The IUCN Red List currently lists the bay cat as "Endangered"; the researchers say a case could be made to reconsider its status in 2015, when the IUCN will reassess all cat species.
Some of the camera trap photos have been strung together in this video, showing this amazing creature as it slinks through the forests of Borneo:
Photos: Imperial College London
Previously in Extinction Countdown: