Scientists discover the secret to fishing cats’ hunting success

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When the famous enigmatic fishing cat hunts in deep water, it remains calm and still. At least, most of the time.

from Asia Prionailurus viverrinus roams swamps and marshes at night, looking for fish that could provide a nutritious meal. Depending on the depth of the water, the wild cat change their hunting strategy to maximize its energy gain, scientists report Dec. 24 Mammal.

The report offers “the first detailed insight into how the fishing cat hunts,” says co-author Tiasa Adhya, a Kolkata-based biologist. One of the foremost experts on the species, Adhya co-founded in 2010 The fishing cat project – the oldest fishing cat research and conservation project in the world.

Just over ten years ago, the fishing cat was among the least studied wild cats in the world. To raise awareness in local communities and gather data on the medium-sized cat, the project launched the Know Thy Neighbor initiative in 2016. More than 20 people living near three prime fishing cat habitats on the east coast of India, including Chilika, the largest brackish water lagoon in Asia – were trained to set up camera traps in their respective quarters.

Tiasa Adhya works in Chilika, a lagoon that is a prime habitat for fishing cats located on the east coast of India.Partha Dey

One of the volunteers, Subas Behera, is a fisherman who lives near Chilika in the village of Bhusandapur. Every evening, Behera would place a camera trap in a predetermined location and remove it the next morning to prevent theft or damage. He has, with great affection, named the female fishing cat recorded by his camera trap “Choti”, meaning small, after her short hind leg.

“A fishing cat thinks like a fisherman,” Behera says. “We’re both constantly thinking about where the fish are.”

Divyajyoti Ganguly, a master’s student in wildlife biology at the National Center for Biological Sciences in Bangalore and co-author of the study, analyzed 197 videos collected by the camera traps from 2016 to 2018.

In deep water – where much of a cat’s body is submerged – felines tend to wait patiently for the perfect opportunity to strike. They stood still almost 52% of the time and only jumped after prey 3.9% of the time, according to the videos.

This “sit and wait” approach helps fishing cats conserve energy while increasing the chances of successfully ambushing their prey. The fisherman cat “thinks hard before he jumps in,” says Adhya. “He has to optimize his [energy] Gain.”

When hunting in shallow water, fishing cats were more active, patrolling about 96% of the time and occasionally prancing through the water to flush out fish, Ganguly and Adhya found.

The idea “broadens and deepens our understanding of the semiaquatic nature of the fishing cat,” says wildlife ecologist Jim Sanderson, founder and director of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation in Corrales, NM, who didn’t participated in the study.

Jaguars in Brazil have been spotted fishing (NS: 10/13/21). But fishing cats have real physical adaptations to a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Their partially retractable claws allow the felines to grab and hold fish, while their double-layered coats help them stay dry, as previous work has shown. The fishing cat is one of only two wild cats in the world with adaptations for being semi-aquatic, the other being the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps) from Southeast Asia.

Still, there’s more to learn about fishing cats, including how many there are in the world. To date, there have been no national counts in any of the 10 countries in which the feline is known. The cats face increasing threats from habitat loss and degradation, as well as human-animal conflict, which has led the International Union for Conservation of Nature to classify the species as vulnerable.

“Living on fish inevitably brings fishing cats into conflict with people who do the same thing,” says Sanderson. “That’s why fishing cat conservation means working with local people.”

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