Species Fact: The Black-Footed Cat


There’s this nesting ostrich in a zoo. A tiny spotted cat — no bigger than the bird’s foot — is sneaking up on it.

Closer . . . closer . . .

. . . and, instead of standing up and kicking the minuscule intruder away for a field goal, or defending the nest with beak and plumy, muscular wings while seated, the ostrich freaks out and abandons its eggs!

The encounter is described by sources quoted in Sunquist and Sunquist (see references at end of post).

While showing a certain lack of avian brain cells, it perfectly demonstrates a feline attitude toward the larger world that has earned Africa’s black-footed cat the local nickname, “anthill tiger.”

Scientific name:

Felis nigripes (Latin for “black” + “foot”)

Lineage:

Domestic cat.

Data:

These are from the Cat Specialist Group, unless otherwise noted.

Tut, a male black-footed cat. (Image: Charles Barilleaux, CC BY 2.0)
  • Weight: From 2 to a little over 5 pounds.
  • Body length: 15 to 21 inches.
  • Tail length: 6 to 8 inches.
  • Coat: Tawny brown with black and dark brown spots that merge into bands on the neck, legs, and tail (which has a black tip). There are also dark markings on the head and face. The “black feet” aren’t stockings/gloves; rather, foot pads are black, as is the underpaw fur.
  • Vocals: Not the high-pitched squeak you might expect from its size. Per Peters et al., the black-footed cat’s “meow” is actually an octave below some other Felis species. They suggest this may have to do with sound propagation in the dry, open habitat black-footed cats call home. And these tiny felines sound off as loudly as a domestic tomcat, believe it or not, although they can be very quiet when purring and gurgling together in the den or during courtship.
  • Average litter size: 1 to 4, average 2.
  • Average life span: 16 years.

Features unique to this cat:

  • This is the smallest cat in Africa and a contender, along with Eurasia’s rusty-spotted cat and South America’s kod-kod, for the world title. It’s interesting to note that there’s apparently only room for one wee feline per continent.
  • While other members of family Felidae can dig — lions often tunnel after warthogs that have gone to ground — black-footed cats are especially good at it. The “anthill” part of their local name, for example, comes from their habit of burrowing into empty termite mounds.
  • A black-footed cat’s short legs and stocky, powerful build are good for shifting dirt around, but there is a trade-off: this is one of the few feline species for whom tree climbing is not really an option.
  • Most cats, including Fluffy, have skin pigmentation that corresponds to their coat colors and markings. According to Wikipedia, this is not the case with black-footed cats. Given their feistiness, though, it’s probably not a good idea to try to confirm this by picking one up, let alone pushing its fur aside to examine the skin.

Where found in the wild:

The central part of southern Africa.
It’s not easy to find a small, wary, nocturnal hunter that blends into its surroundings, but conservationists think that most black-footed cats live in South Africa and Namibia. (Image: BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Black-footed cats not only are tiny, they also have the smallest distribution of any African cat.

It’s still a respectable chunk of real estate, considering their size (even smaller than their neighbor, the African wildcat) and the many challenges they face in the wild.

African wildcats range through most of Africa, excepting tropical rainforests and deserts, while black-footed cats, which may be more sensitive to habitat and climate (Sliwa et al., 2010), aren’t found north of roughly latitude 19° S.

The black-footed cat likes dry open landscapes that provide some hunting cover, like savanna and semi-desert scrublands.

And they can find hidey-holes almost anywhere.


Black-footed cats are small enough to hide in short grass, too, and per Sliwa et al., 2010, they often use abandoned springhare, squirrel, porcupine, or aardvark burrows. (Image: Charles Barilleaux, CC BY 2.0)

A water source is optional — these cats get all the water they need from prey.

Closest cat-family relatives:

It’s not yet clear which came first, Chaus or the black-footed cat. There is consensus, though, that these two species are the most primitive members of the domestic cat lineage.

How black-footed cats hunt and live:

Gerbil fanciers and bird lovers may want to skip this video.



“Not so silly now, am I?” — Ostrich. (Of note, according to every paper I’ve read, the most these little cats travel during their long and very active nights is roughly 5 miles, not 20. That’s still a long distance for such short legs to cover.)


Renard et al. report that feathers provide black-footed cats with an essential amino acid taurine along with a higher proportion of fiber in relation to protein intake.

And Ewer notes that these cats, at least in captivity, eat grass more readily than other members of the cat family and don’t thrive without it.

Whatever their dietary peculiarities might be, though, black-footed cats, like most of their relatives, will eat anything they can overpower or scavenge. (Renard et al.)

This includes bird eggs. So, Ostrich, you did make the wrong move. Never let a black-footed cat psych you out or you might all go extinct!

However, gerbils and other African rodents — generally, those weighing around an ounce to an ounce and a half — are the most common items on the black-footed cat’s menu.

One black-footed cat consumes an estimated 10 to 14 rodents each night.

These cats will occasionally take larger prey, too, sometimes even an animal larger than themselves.

Since black-footed cats aren’t exactly packing the mass of a lion or tiger, this can require some interesting maneuvers:

The play of the black-footed cat [kitten] is very like that of a [domestic cat] kitten but my partially tame youngster would very readily chase a piece of paper on the end of a string and leap on it, turning a somersault as he did so, in a way which is much less common with domestic cat kittens. I believe this is related to the readiness with which the diminutive black-footed cat will hurl himself at relatively large prey, biting, clutching with the forepaws and raking with the hind claws all at once. This technique means that he must be prepared to roll over with his prey without losing his grip and the somersault is the play version of this attack.

— R. F. Ewer (see source list)

But black-footed cats must avoid becoming prey, too. That’s why they only come out at night and also are so wary 24/7/365.

Birds sometimes mob them when they start out in the twilight or return to their shelter at dawn. That wouldn’t bother a lion, but it’s hard on such a small cat.

There are also lots of bigger predators to avoid. Jackals and caracals are probably the worst threats, but African wildcats will go after black-footed cats, too.



It’s a war zone out there, as this encounter between a jackal and an African wildcat shows. Good thing black-footed cats don’t need to visit waterholes!


Living amidst such perils explains the black-footed cat’s feistiness. One was observed repeatedly attacking a jackal that was circling it — arching its back and hissing would not have worked for this tiny feline.

The jackal ran off after the black-footed cat had attacked it five times.

How they reproduce:

It’s not accurate to call any member of the cat family a prude, but black-footed cats do curtail their sex lives, probably because life is so dangerous for them. They can’t afford to be distracted for very long.

A female is receptive for only 36 hours. Her kittens will be born 63 to 68 days later, blind, helpless, and weighing just a couple ounces.

Their eyes open in about a week, and by 2 weeks, they’re able to walk quickly and will soon start exploring their world.

Black-footed cat kittens must grow up quickly.

At a little over 1 month of age, they’re ready to start taking solid food.

By age 6 weeks, they’re ready for live prey. Here’s a video of some kittens around this age that have been given crickets as part of a zoo enrichment program (there’s one shot of Mom, too, who looks big compared to her youngsters).



In the wild, the kittens will be fully independent 5 months after birth. However, they’ll stay in Mom’s range a little longer before leaving to find their own territories.

Interactions with people:

None, really. As mentioned above, it’s even difficult to find black-footed cats in the wild for field research.

Almost all that’s known about them today comes from studying a population living on a game farm near Kimberley, South Africa, between 1992 and 1998. (Cat Specialist Group; Sliwa et al., 2010)

Ewer mentions a number of tame or partially tamed black-footed cats, owned by researchers, in her 1973 book on carnivores.

While domestication is probably impossible, black-footed cats do well in captivity. You’ll find them in zoos in several countries, most notably Wuppertal Zoo in Germany.

Fossil relatives:

No black-footed cat fossils have been identified yet. Two separate phylogenetic studies suggest that their ancestors first appeared some 3 million (Johnson et al.) to a little over 4.5 million years ago (Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds).

Red-listed?

Yes, although conservationists note that this is a precautionary measure. Very little is known about black-footed cat numbers and their distribution outside study areas.

Best estimates show fewer than 10,000 mature individuals in the world, with all of these in very small populations. Combined with evidence of a decline in some places, this puts black-footed cats in the Vulnerable category.

Edited May 3, 2019.


Featured image: Charles Barilleaux, CC BY 2.0.


Sources:

Cat Specialist Group. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=105 Last accessed April 26, 2019.

Ewer, R. F. 1973. The carnivores. The World Naturalist, ed. Carrington, R. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Herbst, M. 2009. Behavioural ecology and population genetics of the African wild cat, Felis silvestris Forster 1870, in the southern Kalahari (Doctoral dissertation, University of Pretoria).

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.; 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.

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.

Peters, G.; Baum, L.; Peters, M. K.; and Tonkin-Leyhausen, B. 2009. Spectral characteristics of intense mew calls in cat species of the genus Felis (Mammalia: Carnivora: Felidae). Journal of Ethology, 27(2): 221-237.

Renard, A.; Lavoie, M.; Pitt, J. A.; and Larivière, S. 2015. Felis nigripes (Carnivora: Felidae). Mammalian Species, 47(925): 78-83.

Sliwa, A.; Wilson, B.; Küsters, M.; and Tordiffe, A. 2016. Felis nigripes. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2016: e.T8542A50652196.

Sliwa, A.; Herbst, M.; and Mills, M. 2010. Black-footed cats (Felis nigripes) and African wild cats (Felis silvestris): a comparison of two small felids from South African arid lands, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. Macdonald, D. W., and Loveridge, A. J., 537-558.

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.



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