Just going on appearance, caracals should be the mobile hot spots of the cat family Felidae, but they’re really the opposite of communicative.
Caracals are shy and therefore hard to study in the wild. Zoologists still don’t know why these Old World cats evolved that “wireless router” ear look.
But this weirdly beautiful feature of theirs has given caracals their name – garah gulak, “black ear,” in Turkish.
Caracal caracal. It looks like the taxonomists were running low on imagination that day; actually, they were pointing out that this is not a lynx, although it sort of looks like one.
Nor does it belong in the house-cat group Felis, although caracals certainly resemble some of this lineage’s members. For instance, jungle cats, a/k/a Felis chaus, frequently have small ear tufts like caracals and lynxes.
Taxonomy is hard. And caracals used to give even seasoned taxonomists headaches until molecular biology became a thing and proved beyond any doubt that caracals belong in their own separate lineage.
This line of medium-sized Old World cats also includes servals (Leptailurus serval) and African golden cats.
There are good scientific reasons why African golden cats are called Caracal aurata, but taxonomists are still debating them. (Kitchener et al., 2017)
Enough for us to know that “caracal” can mean either a genus or a species, but without italics and outside the halls of Science, it’s a unique handle for Black Ears, the “mobile hot spot” wild cat.
From the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted:
- Weight: 13 to 40 pounds.
- Height at the shoulder: I couldn’t find numbers, but Sunquist and Sunquist note that caracals are not quite as tall as long-legged servals but have a much stockier build.
- Body length: 32 to 39 inches.
- Tail length: Unusually short for a cat, 8 to 13 inches. Only the lynx has a shorter tail. (Again, it’s easy to see why people thought these two feline species were related.)
- Coat: Grayish tan to reddish, with white belly and a combination of dark lines and white areas near the nose and eyes. This is the third large cat, besides lions and pumas, to have a solid-colored tawny coat. However, there sometimes are faint furry blotches or even clear spotting on the underparts, per Ewer, though it’s nowhere near as dramatic as lynx spots. Melanistic (black) caracals are occasionally seen, too.
- Vocals: Purr, meow, gurgle, hiss, growl, spit, wah-wah (something pumas and a few other cats do), and perhaps a sort of bark. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
- Average litter size: 2 (Sunquist and Sunquist), with a range of 1 to 6.
- Average life span: 16 to 19 years.
Features unique to this cat:
No other member of the cat family routinely gets its food this way:
Pumas have proportionately longer hind legs, but they need to cover a lot of rugged ground between Tierra del Fuego and the Canadian Rockies. Crevices must be jumped; slopes must be bounded up (or down).
Caracals prefer flat, open areas, perhaps partly for the same reason that NASA and the FAA do:
Ain’t no thang. And yes, those droopy upper eyelids are probably the feline equivalent of sunshades.
And then, of course, there are the ears. Those tufts can be up to 2 inches long, especially in older caracals, and they’re as black as the fur on the back of this cat’s unusually large, triangular ears.
What’s going on with caracal ears?
Most cats have the ability to use their ears directionally, but dish-like ear shape and other changes to better pick up and distinguish sounds are probably part of this cat’s adaptation to its dry habitat.
As for the coloration and tufts/tassels, though, it’s anyone’s guess.
Ewer reports watching two cats using the ears as semaphores — one would twitch an ear, the other would reply in the same way. But this isn’t something that is often described, at least with captive caracals (the ones that have been most often studied).
Perhaps the dramatic visuals give Mom a quiet way to signal her kittens in the arid climates that caracals prefer, where sound can travel a long way.
There isn’t much cover in such places, and that’s awkward for a stalk-and-ambush predator.
At least one caracal owner — yes, these cats can be tamed — has noted how difficult it is, in the right setting, to see his pet lying still with the head almost flat on the ground. Perhaps the ears serve as disruptive camouflage. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
Where found in the wild:
Fortunately, this isn’t one of those depressing “we’re losing them all!” situations. In the 20th century, Ewer noted that caracals ranged through northern Africa from Morocco to Egypt. They also could be found just about everywhere else on that continent except tropical forests of western and central Africa and the Sahara and Namib deserts.
Caracals also roamed Arabia and the Near East, and were found to the east in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the northern and central parts of India.
They’re still there in the 21st century, except on the peripheries like Morocco (where they’re almost gone) and Egypt (where caracals are rare).
On these fringes of their historic range caracals appear to be thinning out, but elsewhere they are doing all right. In South Africa, they are even considered nuisance animals because of livestock predation (mainly sheep and goats).
Caracals live on the Serengeti and in other lion habitats, but they can also tolerate very arid conditions, even more so than servals.
However, you won’t find them in true deserts — sand cats are the only felids that can tolerate that environment.
Closest cat-family relatives:
As we’ve seen, servals and African golden cats are the closest.
According to one widely accepted study (Johnson et al., 2006), big cats are the oldest of the cat family’s eight lineages. Next oldest is the caracal group, followed in order by the ocelot, lynx, bay cat, puma, leopard cat, and Felis lineages.
If this is true, then there really is some evolutionary distance between caracals, lynxes, and jungle cats. The ear tufts and various other shared features must be convergent evolution.
There are no individually famous caracals, although there are probably quite a few beloved pets. Out in the wild, this is a shy, mostly nocturnal predator.
How caracals hunt and eat:
Caracals are generalists. They’ll eat anything from a mouse (much smaller than they are) to an antelope (two to three times as big). They’re not above stealing a meal from other hunters who have made a kill, either, and they won’t turn their noses up at the occasional reptile.
Generally, though, caracals prefer small- to medium-sized (10 or 11 pound) mammals and birds.
We’ve seen how they handle birds by leaping straight up. They also stalk their prey, getting within 16 feet or so and waiting until just the right moment to launch a charge.
Those long hind legs certainly enable them to keep up with every zig and zag a hapless hare or gazelle may attempt in its bid to escape. Caracals can sprint faster than any similar-sized cat.
Caracals are the largest of Africa’s small cats, and the methods they use to dispatch prey reflect this bridging position on the scale that is topped by the big cats.
Like the domestic cat and its African wildcat relative, caracals use a killing bite to the back of the neck to sever the spinal cord and instantly kill their dinner. But for larger animals, they use a throat bite, just as lions and other big cats do, to suffocate the prey.
Like pumas, caracals will cover a carcass and stay nearby to continue feeding until it’s gone, but they are easily driven away, especially in areas like South Africa where they are often hunted.
How caracals reproduce:
Not a lot is known about caracals in the wild, not even if the overall population is growing, declining, or staying steady.
Biologists have managed to learn, mostly from captive animals, that caracals have at least 1 litter a year, but they don’t have a single breeding season.
Pregnancy lasts for about 70 days, and the newborn kittens weigh only 10 ounces or less. Their eyes stay closed for up to 10 days. (Sunquist and Sunquist)
Weaning commences at around age 10 to 25 days, and by the time they’re 2 months old, the kittens can handle solid food. (Ewer)
Of course, they still have an apprenticeship to serve before they’ve got the survival skills necessary to live independently. The young adults generally leave the den after about 9 or 10 months, which is a much shorter time than with, say, lions.
Interactions with people:
In India, royalty used to hunt small game and birds with caracals.
It’s a tradition that’s still carried on in other parts of the world today.
In terms of hazards, caracal attacks are rare. However, when people convert their area into farms, caracals easily make the switch from wild prey to sheep and goats, and the cats sometimes go on killing sprees, too.
This leads to retaliation killing of caracals and their designation as a nuisance animal in some regions, notably southern Africa. However, throughout much of their range, caracals are protected from hunting.
The IUCN lists Caracal caracal as Least Concern because declines in its population are very localized and don’t affect the overall situation.
Because of those declines, though, caracals are considered Threatened in northern Africa, Critically Endangered in Morocco, and almost extinct in Egypt.
There are similar problems in other regions on the periphery of the caracal range.
But the conservationists note that caracals seem adaptable enough to recolonize areas after they have been wiped out locally. Also, they’re so good at avoiding humans that there may be more cats out there than we know.
That’s good news. But caracals do cause problems for farmers, particularly subsistence farmers who can’t afford to lose a single domestic animal. Work needs to be done to help these people, while also protecting the cats.
Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0
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Barycka, E. 2007. Evolution and systematics of the feliform Carnivora. Mammalian Biology. 72(5):257-282.
Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Caracal. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=111 Last accessed March 26, 2019.
Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Johnson, W. E.; Eizirik, E.; Pecon-Slattery, J.; Murphy, W. J.; and others. 2006. The Late Miocene Radiation of Modern Felidae: A Genetic Assessment. Science, 311:73-77.
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Kitchener, A. C.; Breitenmoser-Würsten, C.; Eizirik, E.; Gentry, A.; and others. 2017. A revised taxonomy of the Felidae: The final report of the Cat Classification Task Force of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group. https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/32616/A_revised_Felidae_Taxonomy_CatNews.pdf
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