The Iriomote Cat

by Greg Mayer

The Iriomote cat (Prionailurus benegalensis iriomotensis) is a critically endangered subspecies (sometimes ranked as a full species) of the Leopard cat, a species of small cat distributed widely across Asia from Afghanistan to eastern Siberia and south to the Philippines and Greater Sundas. The Iriomote cat is a dark form, made known to science only in the 1960s, and endemic to the small (112 square miles) island of Iriomote in the Ryukyu Islands of southern Japan. It is not known from the larger islands in the Ryukyus.

"Yon", an Iriomote cat that was hit by a car in 1996, and rehabilitated at the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center, where he remained till his death in 2011. He was mounted after he died. Photo by Purplepumpkins via Wikipedia.

“Yon”, an Iriomote cat that was hit by a car in 1996, and rehabilitated at the Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center, where he remained till his death in 2011. He was mounted after he died. Photo by Purplepumpkins via Wikipedia.

One threat to the cats is being hit by cars, as shown by the survivor, Yon, in the photo above. My Okinawa correspondent sends the following sad news concerning this continuing threat to the cats.

Japan News Iriomote cat.jpg Japan News Iriomote cat 2.jpg

The media attention, extending even to the English language press, shows an admirable public awareness of the cat’s conservation needs.

The Leopard cat and its various subspecies present an interesting biogeographic puzzle, because in addition to occurring on the land bridge islands of the Sunda Shelf (e.g. Borneo), which were connected by dry land to the mainland of Asia during times of glacial sea-level lowering, some also occur on islands that rise from deep water off the continental shelves, such as Iriomote (separated by depths of over 500 m), and some of the Philippines. Except for rats and bats, mammals are generally not very good at over water dispersal (an issue we’ve mentioned here at WEIT before), so the question is, how did they get there? There are at least three possibilities. First, they may have been able to disperse across water by what Darwin called “occasional means of transport”: rafts of floating vegetation (most likely for these cats), ice bridges (not in this case, but suspected for some arctic/antarctic forms), powered swimming (known in elephants), or just floating in the currents (known to occur in tortoises). Second, more substantial geological/geographic changes than glacial sea level drop may have provided a dry shod path to the island in the past; such changes can also narrow water barriers, increasing the chance of successful water crossing. Third, they may have been carried to the islands by man– most or all of the varied West Indian raccoons have turned out to be early introductions. There are various ways of examining these possibilities (fossil/archeological record, paleogeographic reconstructions, genetic divergences among populations, etc.), but I don’t know that the question of dispersal of leopard cats has been directly addressed.

Izawa, M., T. Doi, N. Nakanishi and A. Teranishi. 2009. Ecology and conservation of two endangered subspecies of the leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) on Japanese islands. Biological Conservation 142:1884-1890.

Tamada, T., B. Siriaroonrat, V. Subramaniam, M. Hamachi, L-K. Lin, T. Oshida, W. Rerkamnuaychoke, and R. Masuda. 2008. Molecular diversity and phylogeography of the Asian leopard cat, Felis bengalensis, inferred from mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA sequences. Zoological Science 25:154-163.


  1. Cheistopher
    Posted June 29, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if it is an actual goal of WIET to cover all know Felid species (I hope it is) but I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about ones like this that I never knew existed.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink


      • keith cook + / -
        Posted June 29, 2016 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        Agreed too.

    • Posted June 30, 2016 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      It is amazing how many there are … I also had no idea!

  2. Dominic
    Posted June 29, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    This related article may be of interest –
    Earliest “Domestic” Cats in China Identified as Leopard Cat (Prionailurus bengalensis)

    Also this from last year –
    Variations in leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis) skull morphology and body size: sexual and geographic influences
    “The Iriomote cat remains incertae sedis as a subspecies (P. b. iriomotensis) or a distinct species (P. iriomotensis) since morphological and molecular analyses are not congruent (Masuda & Yoshida, 1995; Johnson et al., 1999; Leyhausen & Pfleiderer, 1999).”

    Thanks Greg for drawing our attention to this beautiful animal – though I value ‘ugly’ animals as well!

  3. Mark R.
    Posted June 29, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this post Greg. I always appreciate being introduced to species I’ve never heard of.

    It’s appalling and mind boggling to imagine all the wildlife worldwide that is killed by cars.

  4. keith cook + / -
    Posted June 29, 2016 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    how did they get there?
    Once in a lifetime.
    by Talking Heads? that’s novel.

    • Posted June 30, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

      “And you may ask yourself, well, How did I get here?”😉


      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted July 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

        Normally after a good party, and in close proximity to “Who are you?”

  5. Richard Bond
    Posted June 30, 2016 at 5:16 am | Permalink

    I have just returned from Crete. While there I visited the Natural History Museum in Heraklion, where I learnt about the fourogatos, Felis silvestris cretensis, an endemic sub-species of wild cat. It appears to be a survivor from when Crete separated from North Africa five million years ago. The remaining population lives in the White Mountains, where there are almost no roads to present a hazard to it.

    Incidentally, the Natural History Museum is a recent venture by the University of Crete, and is well worth a visit.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted July 2, 2016 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      from when Crete separated from North Africa five million years ago.

      Hmmm going to have to check up on the tectonic history of the Eastern Med now. That date sounds suspiciously like they’re looking at the Messinian Salinity Crisis for the date of their “land bridge”. Now, that’s a not-healthy environment to cross. A couple of kilometre-deep basin, active halite and bittern salt deposition. Since someone brought up 1980s song lyrics, can we add that “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name.” That would have been some cross-desert trek.
      All those Med island dwarf elephants raise questions too.

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