by Sean Mowbray
- Currently considered near threatened on the IUCN Red List, the little-known marbled cat may at greater risk from habitat disturbance than previously thought, a new study says.
- The study authors recommend escalating the species’ conservation status to the threatened category of vulnerable.
- Their findings are based on review of camera-trap data from across the species’ range, which found the small cat is an interior forest specialist and may change its daytime behavior to avoid humans.
- The authors say other semi-arboreal felids, such as the margay, may be similarly impacted.
Think of a tropical rainforest being cleared for an oil palm plantation, and the first animal that comes to mind is probably an orangutan. But there’s another tree-dwelling species, not nearly as well known, for which the loss of these same forests may be more devastating than previously thought.
In fact, a new study shows that marbled cats (Pardofelis marmorata), semi-arboreal felines native to southern Asia, are so affected by conversion of forests to oil palm plantation that it recommends escalating the species’ conservation status from near threatened to vulnerable.
The study, published in the journal Ecosphere, suggests other forest-dependent felids, such as the margay (Leopardus wiedii), may be similarly affected. By contrast, some small wild cats that spend more time on the ground than up in trees can adapt better to these human-altered environments.
The researchers analyzed camera-trap images from across Southeast Asia to compare the marbled cat’s habitat use with that of the more adaptable leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis). They found that the marbled cat “responds poorly to habitat clearing and oil palm plantations,” according to Alexander Hendry, first author of the paper with the University of Queensland, Australia.
“The marbled cat was the ideal candidate to test our hypothesis that semi-arboreal animals would be more sensitive to rainforest degradation, such as selective logging, edges, fragmentation, and agricultural incursions,” Hendry told Mongabay in an email interview. Camera-trap data confirmed that it is an “interior forest specialist,” relying upon forest connectivity, according to the researchers.
Multiple species can adapt to oil palm plantation environments, including the leopard cat, which uses them as hunting grounds to prey upon rodents (though this comes with other concerns, such as the risk of disease transmission and exposure to chemicals, such as rodenticides).
“[T]he fact that the terrestrial but otherwise similar leopard cat shows the opposite response suggests the semi-arboreal nature of the marbled cat is likely a factor that contributes to their inability to adapt to disturbed landscapes,” Hendry said.
The findings also suggest the marbled cat may adapt its behavior in response to human activity. Normally active during the daytime, on a few occasions the species was captured on camera during twilight hours when close to disturbed areas, “likely to avoid times when humans are around,” Hendry said. Consequently, “marbled cats may have less time to hunt and travel than they would normally, or may encounter new competitors and predators.”
Together, these findings led the scientists to conclude that the species is likely more at risk than previously thought due to habitat change and the expansion of oil palm plantations.
For Wai-Ming Wong, director of Panthera’s small cats program, the study is “a good example of using by-catch data to provide insights into understudied species.” He said he agrees with the recommendation to update the marbled cat’s listing to vulnerable, a “threatened” category in the IUCN Red List, in line with similarly forest-dependent species, such as the clouded leopard (Neofelis spp.).
“The habitat for marbled cats and indeed other forest-dependent species like the clouded leopard (also vulnerable) are in significant decline, and while there are still large swaths of intact forests across Sumatra and to some degree Borneo, their habitat in mainland [Southeast Asia] is highly degraded and isolated,” Wong told Mongabay in an email.
“Marbled cat records are scarce but this is true of many small cats,” Jim Sanderson, founder and director of the Small Wild Cat Conservation Foundation, told Mongabay in an email, adding that “a paucity of records” does not necessarily mean they are more vulnerable.
“The problem for wild cats and other wildlife in [Southeast Asia] is massive habitat loss, widespread uncontrolled poaching, and insufficient conservation actions to mitigate threats,” he said. “Only the leopard cat is doing well because of the spread of rats as a result of the cancer of palm oil plantation replacing natural habitats.”
Semi-arboreal cats at threat?
The study authors say their conclusions could also apply to other semi-arboreal species such as the margay, found across Latin America, which is also currently considered near threatened.
During the margay’s last IUCN Red List assessment, it was stated that the species may qualify for uplisting to vulnerable in the near future. Tadeu De Oliveria, a researcher and conservationist with Pro Carnivoros, who led the assessment, said the situation may have changed based on better knowledge of its ecology.
“I’ve seen footage of margays moving on tree branches, but whenever they are traveling or hunting, they are on the ground,” De Oliveria, told Mongabay in a video interview. “They do have high arboreal ability, but they are not arboreal per se.
“From what we know of margay ecology, the animal is adaptable and not as sensitive to disturbance,” De Oliveria continued, adding that while the cats appear to be dependent on forest cover and connectivity, they are seen in disturbed areas such as logged forests.
“Our main point from the paper was that margays and marbled cats as semi-arboreal species are likely to be less adaptable and more threatened than terrestrial cats that share their habitat,” Hendry said. He noted that other studies have found that small cat species in Latin America, such as the jaguarandi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi) and ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), can adapt to plantations, while this isn’t necessarily the case for the margay.
De Oliveria said he agrees that plantations are “totally different than logging or other forms of forest disturbance.”
“Replacing the natural cover with palm oil, or whatever plantation it is, does not benefit them at all and negatively impacts them,” he said, adding that a reassessment of the margay is in the pipeline.
Similarly, Hendry and his team aim to lead the next reassessment of the marbled cat’s status. A persistent challenge, which extends to other small cat species, is their enigmatic nature and lack of targeted research, leaving several knowledge gaps in their wider ecology.
While the species’ “semi-arboreal nature” likely contributes to its inability to adapt, Hendry noted, there’s also limited scientific data on much of the marbled cat’s wider ecology. Key open questions include how often they hunt or travel in trees compared to on the ground, and whether they prey primarily on arboreal or terrestrial species.
But this lack of data should not stand in the way of conservation measures, Sanderson said. “More research is not needed to know habitat loss and poaching are major threats negatively impacting all wildlife,” he wrote. “We do not need ‘more research’; we need action [and] threat reduction programs.”
In addition to recommending an escalation of the marbled cat’s conservation status, the researchers identified the Bornean state of Sabah, Peninsular Malaysia, and northwestern Myanmar as possible core areas for protection of the species.
“One of the takeaways here would be stressing the importance of maintaining connectivity between isolated habitat patches in these human-dominated and agricultural landscapes,” Wong said, adding that setting aside areas of high conservation value to serve as wildlife corridors is part of the criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
This is especially important for “forest dependent wildlife like the marbled cat, to be able to disperse into the wider landscape,” Wong said, “thus aiding their survival both on the individual and population levels.”