With a video like this, no word of introduction is needed:
Though the video certainly raises a few questions.
This cat has several scientific and common names. It’s known in the West as a Pallas cat (named after the European who first described it in the 1700s), and most people also know the old Mongolian word for it: “Manul.”
The formal name depends on which authority you check with.
Everyone agrees on the species name manul.
For genus, since no one is completely sure where Manul fits into the family Felidae, Kitchener et al. (2017) and many others use a genus given to this cat in the 19th century– Otocolobus, “dwarf ear.”
You can see where that came from.
In their study, Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds prefer Felis, but they keep Felis manul separate from all other cats in this genus (including not only house cats but also their wildcat relatives, sand cats, jungle cats, black-footed cats, and the Chinese mountain cat–all in all, an adorable collection of small Eurasian and African kitties).
The boffins can do this because family trees (technically known as “cladograms”) and Linnaean scientific names are two completely different but equally valid ways to herd cats (and all other forms of life). We’ll look into that a bit more in another post.
These are from the Cat Specialist Group (CSG) website unless otherwise noted.
- Weight: 7 to 11 pounds (that fur makes Manul appear bigger than it really is, especially in images)
- Body length: 18 to 26 inches
- Tail: 8 to 12 inches
- Coat: Extremely long fur not only provides all-weather protection but also breaks up Manul’s outline on the open ground where it hunts small prey and hides from larger predators.
Coloration: There’s lots of individual variation, but Manul’s coat is usually a grizzled ocher. The blunt-tipped tail has several black rings as well as a black tip. Alternating white and dark facial marks are good disruptive camouflage when the cat, which already has a low profile thanks to a flattened forehead and tiny, wide-set ears, peers over or around a stone. In addition, each hair on Manul’s body has a white tip, giving it an overall snowy shimmer that’s makes it even harder to see. (Heptner and Sludskii; Kitchener et al., 2017; Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia [Russian])
- Longevity: Probably similar to the domestic cat; in captivity, the record is 11 years. (Sunquist and Sunquist; Wikipedia)
- Vocals: There aren’t many descriptions of what Manul sounds like, although its calls reportedly echo through the night during breeding season. In captivity, observers have noted a barking “yau” sound rather than the domestic cat’s “meow.” Pallas cats in zoos also purr on those very rare occasions when they’re in the mood for some petting. (Heptner and Sludskii)
- Litter size: 2 to 6 kittens.
- Total numbers: Few people have successfully studied this shy cat in the wild, but it’s estimated there are 15,000 mature Pallas cats out there, mostly in Mongolia and China. (Ross et al.)
Features unique to Manul:
In addition to its uncertain position in the cat family tree:
- An almost primate-like “face.” This is an illusion formed by the cat’s almost circular head, small and low-set ears, a frame of thick whiskers, and those eyes–those human-like eyes.
- Round pupils. As a rule, smaller cats like Fluffy have vertical-slit pupils, larger ones have round pupils. And then there’s Manul. Since cats can’t tell us what they see, we don’t know why their pupil shapes vary. There are discussions in Werdelin et al., Kitchener et al. (2010), and Banks et al.. I speculate that it somehow might have something to do with Manul’s having to hunt amid reflective rocks and bright snowfields in almost constantly sunny weather, combined with increased solar radiation at the very high altitudes this cat calls home. No other small cat lives in such difficult visual conditions.
- A third eyelid: The only source I have for this is the Cat Specialist Group. Since they call it unique, and are experts, presumably they don’t mean the nictitating membrane that all cats have, but I can find no other reference to it. They say it protects Manul’s eyes from cold winds and dust storms.
- Vulnerability to toxoplasmosis. This one is very sad. Thanks to the rigors of their isolated, harsh environment, Pallas cats apparently evolved without exposure to Toxoplasma gondii, a common parasite in all other cats. (Brown et al.) It’s impossible to prevent exposure to this organism in zoos, and as a result, almost 60% of Manul kittens born in captivity die soon after birth. Bioliogists are trying very hard to come up with a solution to this tragic problem.
Where found in the wild:
Pallas cats are widespread in south central Asia, but rare. In one or two places their range overlaps with that of another small cat, the steppe wildcat.
This region contains some of the highest mountains on Earth as well as the Tibetan Plateau. The cats are well adapted to such extreme conditions and have been sighted as high as 16,400 feet.
There’s food up there for a hypercarnivore. Manul’s range overlaps that of pikas and other small prey that dwell among those montane rocky fields and talus slopes.
This part of Eurasia is also a long way from the coast, which limits precipitation–snowfall, mostly, at these elevations.
A dry climate is ideal for hunters with very short legs.
Manul can’t handle snow depths of more than a few inches, yet it’s hardy enough to live on the Tibetan Plateau and in places like China’s Tien Shan Mountains, where winter temperatures sometimes drop to 40 below.
Temperature is less important to this well-insulated cat than the fact that annual precipation here, over 365 days, is only about 8 inches!
Many of its favorite hunting grounds face south, a direction open to just enough extra sunlight to keep those boulders and rugged slopes snow-free.
Closest cat-family relatives:
This is what zoologists would really like to know.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, various researchers assigned Manul to the lynxes or the wildcats. Some even thought it might be an ancestor of long-haired Persian cats! (It’s not.)
Then, for a while, Pallas cats were considered the oldest member of the Felis group, but molecular testing has shown that’s probably not the case.
Today’s leading hypotheses include:
- Manul is the oldest member of the leopard cat group. This sister group to Felis includes rusty-spotted cats, flat-headed cats, and fishing cats, in addition to Asia’s leopard cat (which is not a true leopard, by the way). Speaking as a layperson, it’s an interesting (and somewhat weird) collection of little South Asian felines. These studies look only at cats and are based on molecular biology research. (Johnson et al.; Kitchener et al., 2017)
- Manul is on its own as a sister group to both leopard cats AND Felis. (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds) This study, which includes the whole order Carnivora, is based on fossils and molecular data.
Famous Pallas cats:
Manul does not make friends easily and cannot be trained, so there are no renowned individuals.
However, with a look like that, the whole species is loved.
It shares a postage stamp in Krygyzstan with snow leopards, tigers, and other Asian fauna, while Azerbaijan has possibly the most adorable collectable stamp in the world.
There are some Pallas cat memes in the West, too.
Probably the best-known one is based on Manul’s tendency to twitch its lip and expose one fang when it’s angry. There isn’t much else this short-legged, short-clawed, little bundle of fur can do to scare off a threat.
How Manul hunts:
Like many other cats, Manul is very good at either stalk-and-pounce hunting or a patient wait at a burrow entrance.
It has adapted perfectly to the dry mountain terrain it inhabits, its flattened head and small ears hardly showing as the cat peers up over or around a rock, and the camouflage patterns of its fur blending into the background.
If a bird or other predator appears on the scene, Manul lies flat on the ground and stays still. In the right setting, this is so effective that human observers can’t see it, even though they were looking at the animal just a moment earlier!
Pikas and other small rodents are the main prey, though Pallas cats are open to other menu options.
But Manul depends on burrowing rodents for more than dinner. It also calls their hidey-holes home.
This is absolutely necessary. The cat is vulnerable to larger predators, including wolves, foxes, dogs (when it lives near humans), and even raptors like owls.
How it reproduces:
It’s not your imagination–she is thin, under all that fur. That’s happens to females with kittens; males lose weight during the breeding season. Winter, of course, is hard on both genders.
Summer is short, up in the mountains, and winter is very harsh as well as long
These facts encourage a quick path to adulthood for Manul, as well as a very seasonal breeding cycle.
As far as researchers can tell with this secretive cat, most births occur between April and May, after a 66- to 75-day gestation. Mom generally has just 1 litter a year.
Litters can be large, but this is a strategy used by many animals that are vulnerable to predation, especially when they live in such extreme habitats. Not all of the kittens survive, or else there would be many more Pallas cats out there than anyone has seen.
Kittens weigh a few ounces at birth and are fuzzy and blind initially. Their adult coat comes in at around 2 months of age, when they weigh a little over a pound.
Hunter’s training starts at four months, and by six months Manul has reached its adult size. Females are sexually mature at 1 year.
Fossils that might be from Manul, dating back more than a million years, have been found in Poland, per Werdelin et al..
Yes. Manul has a Near Threatened status on both the IUCN and Mongolian Red Lists. This means that it’s close to qualifying for a higher threat category. Conservationists are trying to get better information on this wild cat and its numbers.
They’re concerned because Manul:
- Specializes in both prey and habitat
- Has a large range size, but is scarce within that range
- Depends on shelters built by other endangered species
- Is vulnerable to human activities, particularly the herd dogs that accompany livestock grazing in Manul’s vicinity
Featured image: Tambako the Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0.
Banks, M. S.; Sprague, W. W.; Schmoll, J.; Parnell, J. A. Q.; and Love, G. D. 2015. Why do animal eyes have pupils of different shapes? Science Advances, 1: e1500391.
Brown, M.; Lappin, M. R.; Brown, J. L.; Munkhtsog, B.; and Swanson, W. F. 2005. Exploring the ecologic basis for extreme susceptibility of Pallas cats (Otocolobus manul) to fatal toxoplasmosis. Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 41(4): 691-700.
Deng, T.; Wang, X.; Fortelius, M.; Li, Q.; and others. 2011. Out of Tibet: Pliocene woolly rhino suggests high-plateau origin of Ice Age megaherbivores. Science, 333(6047): 1285-1288.
Heptner, V. G., and Sludskii, A. A. 1972. Mammals of the Soviet Union, volume II, part 2: Carnivora (hyaenas and cats). Moscow: Vysshaya Shkola Publishers. English translation by Rao, P.M., 1992. General editor: Kothekar, V. S. New Delhi: Amerind Publishing. https://archive.org/details/mammalsofsov221992gept
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.
Kitchener, A. C.; Van Valkenburgh, B.; and Yamaguchi, N. 2010. Felid form and function, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 83-106. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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
Macdonald, D. W.; Loveridge, A. J.; and Nowell, K. 2010b. Dramatis personae: An introduction to the wild felids, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 3-58. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Malmström, T., and Kröger, R. H. 2006. Pupil shapes and lens optics in the eyes of terrestrial vertebrates. Journal of Experimental Biology, 209(1): 18-25.
Nyakatura, K., and Bininda-Emonds, O. R. P. 2012. Updating the evolutionary history of Carnivora (Mammalia): a new species-level supertree complete with divergence time estimates. BMC Biology. 10:12.
O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.
Ross, S.; Barashkova, A.; Farhadinia, M.S.; Appel, A.; and others. 2016. Otocolobus manul. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T15640A87840229.
Werdelin, L.; Yamaguchi, N.; Johnson, W. E.; and O’Brien, S. J.. 2010. Phylogeny and evolution of cats (Felidae), in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, eds. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 59-82. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wikipedia. 2019. Pallas’s cat. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pallas%27s_cat Last accessed April 8, 2019.
Wikipedia (Russian). 2019. Manul. Via Google Translate at https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&js=y&u=https%3A%2F%2Fru.wikipedia.org%2Fwiki%2F%25D0%259C%25D0%25B0%25D0%25BD%25D1%2583%25D0%25BB Last accessed April 8, 2019.