Cats are known for being hard to track down, but the Sunda clouded leopards of Indonesia are particularly mysterious. Like most cats, these animals lead largely solitary lives, so when it comes time to protect a territory or find a mate, they need to be able to communicate at a distance. Now, new research has produced some incredible video footage that allows us to peek in on how these cats keep in touch.

Tigers, leopards and other solitary cats are known to "talk" mainly by leaving clues around their territory. If you own a house cat, some of the most popular cat-chat methods may be familiar to you, such as cheek-rubbing, urine spraying and clawing trees (or your favourite chair). But there was no solid evidence of these behaviours in Sunda clouded leopards – that is, until conservation biologist and wildlife photographer Max Allen and his colleagues caught them on candid camera.  

Getting footage like this is no easy task. Not only are these cats nocturnal and cryptic (which means "good at not being seen"), but they're also few and far between – population numbers have been hard hit by habitat loss and fragmentation, especially on the island of Borneo, where they are considered endangered. Yet this island is where Allen aimed to find them.

To do so, Allen joined forces with a team working in Gunung Palung National Park, where they set up motion-triggered cameras in various habitats to catch the cats in action. Cameras like these are a great help to wildlife researchers – especially when the study subjects are, in the team's words, "increasingly restricted to remote and inaccessible habitats".

So, after nine months of recording, what did they see? More than 60 instances of leopards visiting a dozen locations and leaving all sorts of evidence behind. Just like other big cats, the clouded leopards were spotted claw-marking and cheek-rubbing against trees, scraping their scents into the ground, and spraying urine, as well as sniffing around for the scents left behind by other cats. These are the first solid observations of how these animals communicate.

The team even caught the cats calling for each other, making yowling noises into the night, but exactly what purpose those cries serve isn't yet clear. "Female pumas tend to caterwaul in order to attract mates, and use calls to keep in touch with their dependent young," Allen said in an email, but added that "these are the first video vocalisations ever recorded of Sunda clouded leopards, and we really don't know what they are doing."

The different sexes also had separate surprises in store. The male cats were the only ones seen "sharing" sites, where multiple males would visit the same location for leaving scents. "This has to do with territoriality, where males compete for territories that include the home ranges of females," Allen said.

On the other hand, females were the only ones seen travelling in groups. On three occasions, the cameras caught moms traversing the forests along with their young.

Overall, the researchers found that these clouded leopards behaved very similarly to other big cats, such as African leopards and snow leopards, which is surprising considering how different their habitats can be (and these species are not quite as closely related as their names might imply). One video did show a clouded leopard wrapping its tail around a tree, something that has never been observed in any other cat, but it's unclear whether this is a special scent-marking behaviour or not.

Much of Allen's past work has been on mountain lions in the Americas, so this research was a change of scene. "[Both species] are cryptic and mysterious, but I was surprised by how much more cryptic clouded leopards are," he said. "I am astounded by what little we know about clouded leopards, and excited to do more research to understand their behaviour and ecology."

These videos may be interesting to watch, but the real triumph is that this research is the first step in decoding how these endangered cats use their habitat and interact with each other. "This will allow for understanding of distribution, abundance and trends in populations over time," Allen said, all of which are key to tracking this species and ultimately deciding how best to protect it.


Top header image: photosbypaulo, Wikimedia Commons