From the Nude Socialist:
Species name: Prionailurus planiceps
Habitat: Wetlands and flood plains in Malaysia and neighbouring regions of south-east Asia
A cat with webbed feet? A cat that's happy to hang out in water? A stump-tailed, flat-headed cat that swims expertly and dines almost exclusively on fish? Such an animal exists – but it's on the last of its nine lives. Only cloning might give it another.
Everyone knows that domestic cats hate water: readers who own one and have tried to give it a bath will be painfully aware of the fact. But the flat-headed cat of south-east Asia throws what everyone knows out the window. An enthusiastic swimmer, more like a feline otter than a cat, it has various adaptations to an aquatic lifestyle.
Although about the same size as the familiar domestic cat, flat-headed cats have short stumpy tails, and their eyes are strikingly large. They split from the other seven major cat groups around 6 million years ago, but there have been few studies of them in the wild, and what we know about their behaviour is mostly guesswork based on their body design (PDF).
Here's what is known or guessed. As the name suggests, their heads are noticeably flattened compared with other cats – perhaps to streamline them for their life in the water.
The feet are partially webbed. A relative, the fishing cat, also has part-webbed feet, but the flat-headed cat's are far more flipper-like. In fact, when a kitten was captured in Malaysia some years ago, its keepers found that it would play for hours in a basin of water. From what's been found in the stomachs of dead animals, it seems their diet was mainly fish, with the odd shellfish and frog thrown in.
Brave new kittens
Classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "endangered", extreme measures may be required to save it.
A new kind of cloning technology called intergeneric nuclear transfer could be the answer. The technique works by taking a nucleus from a skin cell of the animal to be cloned and transferring it into an emptied egg cell of a different, commoner species.
The technique, currently being attempted by Thai geneticists, could allow flat-headed cats to be grown in the lab, without the need for a breeding pair.
Journal reference: Theriogenology, DOI: 10.1016/j.theriogenology.2009.09.001