Species Fact: Sand Cat


Needs a hypercarnivore.

Seriously. You’d be surprised at the diverse wildlife such places can support.

While there probably isn’t an apex predator hidden in this particular image of saxaul-hosting terrain in the United Arab Emirates, there could be. This is perfect sand cat country.

Scientific name:

Felis margarita. French naturalist Victor Loche named it after General Jean Auguste Margueritte, the leader of his 19th-century expedition through the Algerian Sahara.


Feature sand cat old
Tambako The Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0

Lineage:

Domestic cat.

Data:

These are from the Cat Specialist Group unless otherwise noted;:

  • Weight: 3 to 8 pounds.
  • Height at the shoulder: 9 to 14 inches. (Wikipedia)
  • Body length: 15 to 20 inches.
  • Tail length: 9 to 12 inches.
  • Coat: Tannish yellow, medium-length fur with white on face and underparts, as well as a few dark markings, mainly bands and spots, that vary among individuals and from place to place. The winter coat is very thick and long, making these Fluffy-sized cats appear much larger than they really are. (Heptner and Sludskii)
  • Vocals: The “sand cat spit” — a breathy ‘tcha!’ sound — is familiar to anyone who has seen Felis margarita in a zoo. However, these shy hunters are rarely seen, let alone heard in the wild. Hemmer et al. describe their voice as raucous and note that, just like the jungle cat, sand cats “bark” like a small dog.
  • Average litter size: 1 to 8, average 3 kittens.
  • Average life span: In captivity they have lived up to 17 years.

Features unique to this cat:

  • This is the only member of the cat family to live primarily in the desert.
  • sand cat licking paw
    Of course, extra-furry feet require extended bath time. (Image: Tambako The Jaguar, CC BY-ND 2.0)
  • Sand cats have long black/brown fur that completely covers their footpads. This fur “shoe,” similar to the lynx’s “snowshoe,” insulates their feet from hot sand, which in some places, per Heptner and Sludskii, can reach more than 170 degrees Fahrenheit during summertime.
  • The auditory structures in a sand cat’s skull are very specialized, compared to other small cats. Only Manul and the black-footed cat — both of whom also live in very dry conditions — have some of little Felis margarita’s ability to detect low-frequency noises that prey make underground or while shuffling through sand. As for Fluffy, Kitchener et al. report that sand cats hear such sounds up to a quarter-mile farther off than house cats do.

Where found in the wild:

320px-SandCat_distribution
BhagyaMani via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0

Sand cats occasionally are seen in the roughly 6-million-square-mile desert areas shown on this map in red and purple colors.

But these felines are so secretive and difficult to track that no one really knows much about them or why their distribution appears to be so patchy.

However, while the sand cat certainly lives up to its name, you won’t find it in a shifting dune field that has no vegetation.

This, even though Russians call it barchan kot: the dune cat. The nomad name — “cat that digs holes” — is a little closer to the cat’s lifestyle.

There must be some greenery established on the sandy areas that Felis margarita calls home.

Plants are necessary to feed and shelter little prey animals. They also hold down sand, giving the cat permanent soil to burrow into so it can hide from both intense daytime heat and larger predators.

It’s a Goldilocks thing, though. Too many plants, and this stalk-and-ambush predator hasn’t enough room to do its thing.

Keep an eye out for these cryptic-colored cuties in any sandy desert that has just enough grass, bushes, or other vegetation to provide cover and support some rodents, birds, and other small wildlife.

But don’t expect to see one. That takes some luck!



When looking for a home, sand cats may use an abandoned fox hole or else enlarge a rodent’s burrow to suit their own needs. Like the black-footed cat, they’re very good diggers.


Closest cat-family relatives:

Sand cats are sort of in the middle of the domestic cat lineage. Per phylogenetic studies, they’re not quite as ancient as Chaus and the black-footed cat, but separate from and a little bit older than wildcats and house cats.

Famous sand cats:

Small wild cats never develop much of a fan base, but Canyon the Sand Cat has earned Florida’s Big Cat Rescue almost 2 million YouTube views at the time of writing:



Look how well Canyon can climb, even though sand cats never get a chance to do this out in the desert!


How sand cats hunt and live:

Gerbils, hamsters, and other small rodents live among the plants of the desert. So do lizards and small birds, as well as snakes.

Around sunset, the sand cat leaves its burrow and hunts them all. It’s not fussy but, like other small cats, does prefer rodents when it can get them.



Sand cats like jerboas, and they’re just as good at zig-zagging. Too, when they flush prey, the cats can sprint at 20-25 mph for as much as a third of a mile. On sand. Those “shoes” must give them traction, too.


This is not a patient sitter, waiting for an unwary victim to pop out of its hole. Sand cats are almost constantly on the move, traveling 6 miles or more each night on those short legs.

However, sand cats do stay in their burrows when it’s cold outside.

Nights in the desert are always surprisingly chilly, but in the northern part of the sand cat’s range, there’s occasional snowfall.

Many desert rodents hibernate during winter. This is when cats depend more on birds, lizards, and other small animals.

In especially hard times, they’ve even been seen close to human settlements, but they aren’t known to prey on small domestic animals.

While there aren’t many studies of this elusive animal, experts suspect that sand cats, like their prey, experience boom-and-bust cycles — dying off during severe winters or extended droughts and then coming back when conditions improve.

The main predators sand cats must watch out for are large birds, jackals, and wolves.

How they reproduce:

The “barking” that Hemmer et al. mention is probably the sand cat’s courting call.

Captives have no particular breeding season, but in the Sahara most sand cat kittens are born between January and April after a gestation of 59 to 67 days. (Cat Specialist Group)

They weigh about 1.5 to 3 ounces and, like all kittens, are blind and helpless at first. But they grow quickly, putting on up to half an ounce a day during their first three weeks, and by 5 months are almost fully grown. (Sunquist and Sunquist)

Little is known about the lives of wild sand cats, but the Cat Specialist Group suggests that they are ready to leave the den at around 6 to 8 months of age.

You have to grow up quickly in the desert.


sand cat kitten and mom
Charles Barilleaux, CC BY 2.0

Interactions with people:

Oddly enough, captive-bred sand cats like Canyon the Sand Cat in the video above tend to be more aggressive and shy than wild-caught animals, which are often unafraid of people.

That’s especially interesting since these cats sometimes live in areas of ongoing human conflict. Per the video, Canyon’s parents were transferred out of the Desert Storm battlefield, and some Pakistani sand cats, along with other wildlife, even live in the region where that country first tested its nuclear weapon!

However, sand cats probably avoid soldiers and firefights, whenever possible, just as well as they do researchers who only want to understand and protect these little cats.

In some areas, local people respect sand cats. According to Muslim tradition, sand cats, along with eagle owls and hoopoe larks, accompanied the prophet Mohammed and his daughter Fatima.

Fossil relatives:

No fossils are known. Molecular studies suggest that sand cats first appeared around 2.5 to 3 million years ago. If true, that would get them started just before the North Pole froze and ice ages became a thing.

Red-listed?

Yes, as Least Concern. For much of the 21st century, sand cats were considered Near Threatened, but they were downlisted in 2016 when better estimates of this feline’s numbers showed that the total population is above the threshold for threatened status.

That said, researchers don’t yet know whether the scarcity of sightings is from some problem, like habitat changes and other human factors, or due to natural causes (since deserts don’t support large crowds).

Conservationists say that better surveys are needed, as well as more studies of sand cat ecology and behavior.


Featured image: بوبدر Public domain.



Sources:

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

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

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.

Turner, A., and M. Antón. 1997. The Big Cats and Their Fossil Relatives: An Illustrated Guide to Their Evolution and Natural History. New York: Columbia University Press.

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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