By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News
A flat-headed cat caught by a camera trap in Tangkulap Forest Reserve, Sabah, Malaysia in March 2009
One of the smallest and most enigmatic species of cat is now threatened with extinction.
According to a new study, habitat loss and deforestation are endangering the survival of Asia's flat-headed cat, a diminutive and little studied species.
Over 70% of the cat's habitat has been converted to plantations, and just 16% of its range is now protected.
The cat, which has webbed feet to help hunt crabs and fish, lives among wetland habitats in southeast Asia.
Details on the decline of the cat's range are published in the journal PLoS ONE.
The flat-headed cat is among the least known of all wild cat species, having never been intensively studied in its natural habitat.
Weighing just 1.5 to 2kg, the cat is thought to be nocturnal, adapted to hunting small prey in shallow water and along muddy shores.
Now restricted to a handful of tropical rainforests within Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, nothing is known about the size of each cat's home range or the density of the remaining population.
So in an attempt to estimate how the species is faring, a team of scientists gathered together all known information about where the cat is thought to live, including sightings, pictures taken by camera traps and dead specimens.
The team, led by Mr Andreas Wilting of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, Germany gathered 107 records overall, which they then used to create a computer model that predicts the cat's historical and current distribution.
That confirmed that flat-headed cats like to live near large bodies of water such as rivers and lakes.
They also prefer coastal and lowland areas.
Crucially for the species's survival though, the researchers found that just 16% of its historical range is fully protected according to criteria laid down by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Other areas are also protected, but these are large national parks, which in southeast Asia tend to be located at higher elevations where the flat-headed cat is not thought to roam.
Around 70% of its former range may already have been converted to plantations to grow crops such as palm oil.
Also, two-thirds of all the locations the cat has been recorded in are now surrounded by areas in which high densities of people live.
The cat's scarcity is underlined by the fact that it has been photographed just 17 times by camera traps.
In comparison, other felids in the region, such as tigers, leopard cats, marbled cats and Asian golden cats are regularly photographed this way.