Webs of Lies

This week’s #FishingCatFriday statement was,

“Fishing cats have webbing between their toes. This helps them swim after fish!” 

And we asked you if this was true or false. 

According to the polls, we had a 79% vote for true, and a 21% vote for false. 

Now here’s the kicker. The correct answer is…

False!

There is a common misconception that fishing cats, being the expert divers that they are, would obviously be equipped with all the necessary diving gear. From a double-layered coat that protects their skin from getting too wet, all the way to their ability to flatten their ears back so tight, that it prevents water from seeping into their ear canals. But their most impressive piece of equipment is said to be their webbed front feet which help propel them with ease and speed through the water. Roberts (1977) even goes on to say “there is a partially developed web of skin between each of the digits, much more conspicuous than those of a domestic cat’s…”

It was not until Andrew Kitchener (1991) debunked this myth in his book “The Natural History of the Wild Cats”. In it, he states that after examining the paws of a live female fishing cat in person, he found that the webbing isn’t as pronounced as Roberts claimed. In fact, it was quite similar to the webbing found in bobcats.

When I first started working on fishing cats, getting my hands on these (expensive) books was difficult. So when we were prepping to collar our first fishing cat, Houdini, I remember excitedly waiting for the sedatives to kick in so that I could examine his magical paw webs. Those glorious folds of skin which expanded in the water like underwater flying squirrels. 

But spreading the sleeping fishing cats toes brought all these fantastical fantasies to a sudden halt. 

Where were the silken sheets of skin? Where is that hidden parachute? All I saw was an extended paw, slightly smeared in fresh scat which smelled rather musky. Was something wrong with this fishing cat?

A few email exchanges between Dr Sanderson and I revealed that there were no parachutes, no flying squirrel like folds. Fishing cats had no magical propelling power, their paws, though slightly broader were almost identical to other cats. The only power they had was their insane love for water.

Also, here is me debunking Robert’s statement about fishing cats having webbing that’s more conspicuous than that of a domestic cat. I politely (as politely as I could) dragged Tsavo (my mother’s domestic cat) out from under the bed where she lay, fast asleep. With the help of my mum, we gingerly spread sleepy Tsavo’s toes apart to take a picture.

Do you see much of a difference when comparing Tsavo’s webbing with Waduwa’s? I think not!

Fishing cat Waduwa’s extended paw showing webbing between toes. The blue is just water colour paint, used to make prints.
Tsavo’s extended paw showing webbing between toes

References

Kitchener, A. (1991) The Natural History of the Wild Cats, New York: Cornell University Press.

Roberts, T. J. (1977) The Mammals of Pakistan, London & Tonbridge: Ernest Benn Limited.

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