Rare Aquatic Cats That Fish With Their Paws Are on the Brink of Extinction

A fishing cat perches near the water in search of prey. Wiki Commons

Cats are generally known for their aversion to water, but in the wet jungles of Southeast Asia there are cats that have had to adapt to a different lifestyle. The most extreme example of this is the fishing cat, an extraordinary aquatic feline with webbed feet that fishes for prey by using its paw as a lure.

Fishing cats are known to be capable of swimming long distances, even underwater. They fish by gently tapping the surface of water to mimic the ripples of insects at the surface. When unsuspecting fish come along, the cats strike and hook them with their claws.

Unfortunately, though, these cats are becoming as rare as they are unique. One particular subspecies, the Javan fishing cat, might just be the rarest cat in the world, and researchers fear it may already be extinct, reports New Scientist.

“Is it the rarest cat in the world? It quite possibly could be, if it’s still alive,” said Anthony Giordano, a conservation biologist and expert on the elusive feline.

Giordano is the leader of an expedition that seeks to discover proof that these beautiful creatures are still hanging on. The last one that was spotted and recorded by scientists was in the early 1990s, but there have been anecdotal clues since then. People have claimed to have spotted them, but it's possible these reports are actually of more common leopard cats, which possess similar markings on their coats.

“Fishing cat tracks are fairly distinctive. There’s very little you can confuse it with particularly on an island like Java,” explained Giordano. “Fishing cat tracks are really interesting in the sense that unlike other cats, on average you’ll see the claws in their prints due to their semi-retractable claw system.”

The biggest threat to fishing cats anywhere in the world — the island of Java especially — is habitat loss. They need to roam extensively through wetland and mangrove habitat, and human encroachment into this eco-zone is especially rampant. Just 12 percent of Java's original mangroves remain, leaving little room for cats to hide. If they do still survive, their population has likely been reduced to critical levels.

“It’s a small cat, but don’t tell the fishing cat that. It’s a really badass cat — they’re not to be trifled with,” boasted Giordano. “They’re also adaptable.”

So there's hope. And if the expedition does uncover proof that these cats are still alive, it could lead to stronger conservation programs. It would be a shame, indeed, to lose such a graceful, charismatic and peculiar cat.