The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is closer to cracking the code for breeding one of Asia’s most elusive species with the birth of two fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus). Electra (7) delivered the kittens this spring in an off-exhibit den. Their birth marks an important milestone: this is the first time fishing cats have successfully bred and produced young at the National Zoo.
“Many months of behavior watch, introductions and research allowed us to get to this point,” said Zoo Director Dennis Kelly. “It’s very rewarding that our efforts have paid off. The future of their wild cousins hangs in the balance, so it’s imperative that we do all we can to ensure their survival.”
Before Lek arrived at the Zoo in January 2011, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan® (SSP) for fishing cats intended to pair Electra with another male. The SSP scientists determine which animals to breed by considering their genetic makeup and social needs, temperament and overall health. Despite meeting these criteria, the other male and Electra never took an interest in one another. By contrast, when keepers introduced Lek and Electra, the cats soon began showing signs of affection, such as grooming and nuzzling.
The Zoo’s three adult fishing cats are part of a multi-institutional study that examines the many facets of introducing a potential breeding pair. Researcher Jilian Fazio is looking at stress and reproductive hormones to determine if different introduction techniques or individual personalities spell success or failure when it comes to fishing cat reproduction. The National Zoo’s recent success is particularly important for fishing cat populations in human care. Of the 32 fishing cats in the North America SSP, only 27 of them are considered reproductively viable. Lek and Electra’s kittens will become valuable breeders because their genes are not well represented in the captive population.
Only one other facility accredited by the AZA has successfully bred fishing cats since 2009. The Zoo hopes that by sharing its successful management strategies, other zoos across the country will have similar results.
“Electra will let the kittens explore only so far before she brings them back under her close watch,” said Animal Keeper Courtney Janney. “Her maternal instincts kicked in right away, and she’s proving to be a very adept and confident mother. We are very proud of the whole process and look forward to learning all we can about their development.”
The two fishing cat kittens, a male and female, received a clean bill of health from Zoo veterinarians on 29 June. The veterinary team performed a complete physical exam, which includes: listening to the kittens’ heart and lungs; checking their mouth, eyes, legs, feet and genital area; and feeling their bellies. The kittens also received the first of a series of vaccines that protect against feline distemper and some upper respiratory viruses.
Fishing cats are named after their hunting technique. The majority of their diet consists of prey such as fish, frogs and aquatic birds, and they have a unique way of capturing their meals. By tapping their paws on the surface of the water, they trick prey into thinking the water ripples are from an insect. When the prey is close enough, the cat will either dive into the water after it or scoop it out using its partially webbed paw.
Fishing cats are vanishing from riverbanks in their native India and Southeast Asia due to water pollution, poaching and increased shrimp farming throughout their habitat. Wild populations have decreased by 50 percent in the past 18 years, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to change the species’ status from vulnerable to endangered.