Species Facts: The Chinese mountain cat


Here’s another rare feline, even less understood than the African golden cat.

Once again, the best wild image I could find was a screen capture, this time from a camera-trap video that caught Mom and her two kittens near their nest.



Name:

This adorable but rugged little cat used to be known in the West as “desert cat” or “Chinese steppe cat.” Nowadays, many call it the “Chinese mountain cat,” since it’s seen more in high-altitude grasslands and shrubs than in arid or semi-arid terrain. (He et al.)

The local name is “grass cat” because its fur is the color of dry grass.

Opinion is divided on the Chinese mountain cat’s scientific name. Those who think this cat is a member of the wildcat group call it Felis silvetris bieti. Others, who hold out the possibility that such an isolated kitty might be a separate species, call it Felis bieti. (Kitchener et al.; Riordan et al.)



What do you think — wildcat or separate species? I want to make those marks above the eyes into the famous tabby “M” that wildcats (and Fluffy) have, but it’s not that clear.


Lineage:

Felis (domestic cat).

Outstanding Features:

  1. One of the least known members of family Felidae. The existence of Chinese mountain cats has been recognized by Western scientists since the 1880s, but until the first photographs in the wild were taken in 2007, only pelts and a very few individuals in zoos were available for study. Even today, native hunters and Chinese scientists alike know very little about this feline (He et al.), while the red-listing agency experts Riordan et al. reported in 2015 that there had been no progress in understanding its status and distribution since the last assessment in 2010.
  2. Only found in China — something true of no other cat. China’s other wild cats, big and small, all roam across international borders.
  3. Enlarged ears and related internal structures. In order to hear better, many small animals living in dry climates have extra-large ears. This includes the Chinese mountain cat, as you can see at certain angles here:


    The inner ear structure in this species isn’t quite as large as in Manul (the Pallas cat), but it’s larger than that of many other cats.

  4. They rest and den up in burrows. At such heights, underground is the only place to shelter from wind and cold. I found no mention of whether Chinese mountain cats dig their own den or, as is more common in small cats, take over a prey’s hidey-hole. They are good diggers — observers have seen them listening for a mole rat’s movements underground and then digging in after it.

Data:

This information is from the Cat Specialist Group, except where noted.

This captive is in much better condition than the nursing mom shown in the videos above who must hunt for herself as well as care for her kittens — quite a task for any wild female cat, especially in this rugged environment! (Image: ylq/Shutterstock)

  • Weight: 12 to 20 pounds. Chinese mountain cats are small compared to, say, snow leopards, but they’re still twice the size of a house cat.
  • Height at the shoulder: Almost 10 inches. (Tibet Nature)
  • Body length: 24 to 34 inches.
  • Tail length: About 11 to 14 inches.
  • Coat: In summer the coat is dark brown, with paler underparts and darker hind feet; it thickens in winter and turns a light gray/ocher, though underpart fur remains white to pale yellow. There’s faint brown horizontal striping on the sides and legs, as well as one stripe on each cheek. The Chinese mountain cat’s large ears are yellow-gray on the back and have dark brown tufts, somewhat like a lynx but not as long. Its ringed tail has a black tip, and there is some long hair in between the toes, though not as much as on the desert-dwelling sand cat. (Cat Specialist Group; Sunquist and Sunquist; Tibet Nature)
  • Litter size: 2 to 4 (while not specified, this is probably true of the few cats in zoos; all sources agree that nothing is known of Chinese mountain cat reproduction in the wild)

Where found in the wild:

Cephas via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Chinese mountain cats have only been reported from the northeastern and eastern edge of the Tibet Plateau — that explains the “mountain” part of their name.

Details of the “Chinese” part are a little more uncertain.

As of 2002, Sunquist and Sunquist wrote that most evidence of Chinese mountain cats came from fur markets in Sichuan Province; in 2015, Riordan et al. reported that at present they are known to be in Qinghai, Gansu, and Xinjiang provinces, with only historical records in Sichuan, Ningxia, and Tibet.

Qinghai Province appears to be the mountain cat’s stronghold — most of the province is rural, with people and industry mainly concentrated in the capital city of Xining. (He et al.)

Habitat:

  • Range of environments: Like their snow leopard neighbors, Chinese mountain cats dwell only in the high country, where they experience harsh climate extremes.


    Size limits Chinese mountain cats to relatively snow-free areas, mainly alpine meadows between 8,000 and 16,500 feet, though they have also been seen in alpine steppe and shrublands. They have never been recorded in deserts or dense forests; however, very little is known yet about this elusive, remote cat.

  • Prey base: Rodents — voles, rats, and pikas. Chinese mountain cats probably also scavenge as well as take the occasional lagomorph (relatives of the rabbit) and bird.
  • Example of guild: Chinese mountain cats and steppe wildcats (Felis silvestris ornata) may overlap a bit in some parts of their respective ranges. (MacDonald et al.) her than that, it is difficult to find information about other small carnivores in the Chinese mountain cat’s domain.

Red-list status:

Vulnerable, according to the latest assessment (Riordan et al.), but the status is uncertain, like so much other knowledge about this rare species. The main threats appear to be related to the illegal fur trade as well prey loss and accidental killing from Chinese government pest eradication programs aimed at poisoning pikas (which are deemed a threat to livestock).


Sources:

Cat Specialist Group. 2019. Chinese mountain cat. http://www.catsg.org/index.php?id=104 Last accessed December 24, 2019.

He, L.; García-Perea, R.; Li, M.; and Wei, F. 2004. Distribution and conservation status of the endemic Chinese mountain cat Felis bieti. Oryx, 38(1): 55-61.

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.; Yamaguchi, N.; Kitchener, A. C.; Daniels, M.; and others. 2010. Reversing cryptic extinction: the history, present, and future of the Scottish wildcat, in Biology and Conservation of Wild Felids, ed. D. W. Macdonald and Loveridge, A. J., 471-491. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Brien, S. J., and Johnson, W. E. 2007. The evolution of cats. Scientific American. 297 (1):68-75.

Riordan, P.; Sanderson, J.; Bao, W.; Abdukadir, A.; and Shi, K. 2015. Felis bieti . The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2015: e.T8539A50651398. https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/8539/50651398 Last accessed December 24, 2019.

Sunquist, M. and Sunquist, F. 2002. Wild Cats of the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=IF8nDwAAQBAJ

Tibet Nature Environmental Conservation Network. 2014. Chinese mountain cat. http://www.tibetnature.net/en/chinese-mountain-cat/ Last accessed December 24, 2019.

Wikipedia. 2019. Chinese mountain cat. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_mountain_cat Last accessed December 24, 2019.




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